Regulators face tough issues after airport drone scares

Newest victims of drone invasions

Innovation often races ahead of the rules. In 1946 Howard Hughes personally tested his bold new reconnaissance plane and crashed it through three houses, nearly killing himself.

In 2018, unmanned aircraft severely disrupted the UK aviation network for days. These are examples of emerging technology operating at the edge of the world that regulators anticipated.

Both would prompt regulators to act, but act too late.

On drones, the challenge for policy makers is complex. Drones are relatively new, increasingly available, often cheap and easy to operate.

They hold the potential to provide substantial benefits to our lives. They monitor factory operations, minimise issues at sea ports, and may soon deliver our mail. As we saw in Christmas 2018, however, one in the wrong place can also cause huge knock-on effects felt across the country, causing disruptions that can take days to correct.

Mandatory registration

We already have some rules governing drones. Regulations brought into effect in July 2018 clarified existing laws banning drones within one kilometre of an airport.

Height restrictions ought to keep drones below the level of the lowest flying civilian aircraft. It has, apparently, always been illegal to fly drones directly over people and crowded areas.

More changes are slated for 2019, with mandatory registration, a wider exclusion zone around airports, and online safety schemes due. After December 2018, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has rightly accelerated these changes.

There are some rules, therefore, on how civilian drones ought to be used. Much of it appears to be guidance, with little in the way of enforcement provisions. Unfortunately recent events have exposed the enduring flaw in drone regulations – how to mobilise against a drone or operator who flouts the rules.


Firms are working to develop anti-drone technology, but there is no widely accepted way to enforce regulation

Firms are working to develop anti-drone technology, but there is no widely accepted way to enforce regulation. Critical infrastructure sites such as airports are beginning to identify a need for counter measures, but this is slow and piecemeal.

Rules about what one can’t do are inevitably reactive, it’s easier to regulate in response to an event than in anticipation of it. Policy on new technologies ought to focus on supporting the positives, and incentivising development for our benefit.

Wing, of Alphabet fame, has received support from the Australian and Finnish governments to trial drone delivery of groceries, medicines and supplies, utilising the space below 500 feet and allowing low altitude traffic management systems to be designed and improved.

Similar projects could benefit the UK. The Mayor’s London Plan and Transport Strategy set ambitious targets for reducing reliance on road vehicles and reducing overall vehicle numbers, yet are vague on how.

Properly regulated commercial drones and low altitude air traffic management systems could, for example, take light freight off roads, reducing congestion and contributing to lower emission targets.

When policymakers fail to support and encourage innovation they will be forced to follow in its wake. Drones provide a graphic example, but other risk areas abound in the United Kingdom, cybersecurity, health and financial services to name a few.

Look out for Hume Brophy’s take on the state of policy in these and other areas.