New Drone Laws and Other White Elephants

New Drone Laws
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New Drone Laws and Other White Elephants

Drone pilots! Unless you have been living in a cave, you will have noticed a clamour over the last year to introduce some new drone laws around unmanned air systems (UAS). In summer we heard about an idea to make folk register their drones. Yesterday, 27/11/2017 we were brought the news that owners of UAS over 225g will have to register their machines and have training. Personally, as a professional operator I welcome this.

New Drone Laws/Old Drone Laws

The current legal system around UAS has not kept pace with the  powerful drones available in the consumer market. It’s pretty obvious that some new drone laws are probably needed, because of the prevalence of powerful drones available at …Curry’s for one.  Also,moving forward, there are likely to be more and more drones around, doing more and more. They are wonderful toys and powerful tools in the right hands.

Currently the only actual ‘Law’ for which you could be punished for breaching is the Air Navigation Order (ANO). The basic premise of the ANO is that when flying one must not ‘recklesley endanger an aircraft or property’. And that folks, is about all. In a drone under 7KG, there are very few and very vague rules around where you can actually fly. Naturally there is the drone code, but the code is just a code, not a law.

Like the Highway Code, breaches of the code are not breaches of the law.

The way the code becomes relevant is in describing a set of desired behaviours in drone pilots. The drone code basically means you have to keep your drone away from people and properties(50M) and ‘congested areas’ (150M). Upon completion of a course by an approved operator, a drone pilot can get a permission for commercial operations (a PfCO) and the distances are reduced. Take a look at my showreel on the home page if you want to see some legally obtained shots – some of which I was so paranoid about I actually rang the CAA first to ask about.

Other laws

Aside from local bye laws concerning the flight of model aircraft in public parks, of which there are a lot in Leeds by the way, there are really three types of crime that come to mind in relation to drones:

  • The first is flying drones into prisons to deliver drugs,
  • The second is flying drones near to aircraft.
  • The last concerns personal privacy

These are the three issues which vex the most. However, they are largely dealt with in other areas of the criminal law.

Firstly, no new drone laws are required to tackle drugs being supplied into prisons. That is already an offence. It’s called supplying drugs into prison.

The second issue is flying a drone near to an aircraft. That is already an offence because in doing so one would be recklessly endangering said aircraft.

The third issue here concerns privacy. There are various laws around privacy in the UK. Data privacy concerns the processing of personal data held by organisations and is being updated this year by GDPR. Then there are ‘criminal’ privacy issues such as those under the Sex Offences Act – the main one being ‘voyeurism’. This is basically defined as ‘watching someone doing something private for sexual gratification’. Personally I believe if you are using your drone and getting sexual gratification that puts you in a whole other category of weird. You should be subject to some sort of injunction or monitoring. It could be a sign of psychopathy, or a new sort of very niche porn.

The Police Are Very Unlikely To Do Anything

Even if the government bring in some new drone laws, it is vanishingly unlikely that the cops will actually do anything about it. I speak as a former Police officer with experience in small ports and aviation. I’ve dealt with the CAA and they are very good people, very keen on enforcement. Alas, with very few tools. It’s not because the Police don’t want to do anything about it. The Police decide which laws to focus on by assessing the threat, risk and harm posed by breaches of a given law. The Police rightly look at the ‘overall’ harm of an offence or incident.

At the moment, one of the most vigorously enforced criminal laws is one of the least serious – common assault.

Common assault is an assault with basically no real injury – a push, a shove. However (rightly), the top priority for most forces in the country is domestic abuse. The key crime type in this is common assault, with minor injury. That’s because domestic abuse is an awful thing which has a caustic effect on the whole of society. It also leads to a lot of homicides. Nowadays, if one partner or former partner hits another and it is reported to the Police, it is very likely indeed that the assailant will be ‘dealt with’ (likely arrested).  But there are no where near enough Police to undertake even this vast swathe of work.


Bedfordshire Police recently said that they were considering not investigating theft from shops where the theft was less than £100 in value as an example. You can bet yer bippy that lots of my previous colleagues happily write off swathes of £99.99 thefts. The Police don’t even investigate fraud any more, despite it’s huge impact on the economy. Some areas of the country are rapidly becoming consequence free zones. Crimes we used to consider outrageous are simply not being looked into any more. I simply cannot see the Police taking on drone crime investigations. Unless that is,  it becomes associated to a high risk crime type. Most of this is covered in the criminal law anyway.

Investigation of Drone Offences – Witnesses are hard to Find.

Investigating drone offences would be very difficult; too difficult. That’s  because of the need to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the UAS had flown somewhere illegally.  Once the prosecution had proved this element of an offence it would then be necessary to show some sort of intent, or recklessness. Presumably witnesses are quite difficult to find at higher than 400ft. Witnesses at more than 400ft who are claim to be able to identify the pilot of the craft are probably on crack. In any case, witnesses are difficult enough to find in pubs.

Note that I’m not discussing finding witnesses to people flying drones inside prisons – that’s already an offence and the new drone laws wouldn’t change that.  In that case, wer’e talking about a serious indictable offence and a full forensic lift would probably be authorised were the drone to be captured, as they sometimes are. Done properly, a CCTV trawl and witness appeal may also be enacted. However, if every daily Mail reader who sees a drone flying over their laundry expects the same service, then those expectations need to be managed.

Passive Data

This is the name for the category of evidence you get from technical records – things like phone data, CCTV, ANPR that sort of thing. There would  be a couple of sources of passive data evidence available to the Police. The main one is from on board the craft itself. However this would require access to the tablet which gathered the data, and thanks to Julian Assange and the Apple corp this is pretty much unobtainable. The other option would be a technical download of the flight data from experts. Again, this would be very expensive and the examination would probably not be authorised. It was difficult enough getting a computer downloaded for serious offences, never mind less serious offences.

Regulation smegulation

I simply can’t see it being viable for the Police meet the criminal standard of proof in law to prosecute anyone for bad drone behaviour. Except where offences which are already offences are to be looked into that is. Yes, there have been a few isolated prosecutions, but these seem mainly to have concerned the breach of specific regulations in London parks. If you can’t regulate behaviour, the only thing left is to regulate the device.

As a former detective, I think the only way forward is to mandate the registration of drones, and create a license system. Anything else would require too much complexity.

However in this case, a multi pronged approach needs to be taken. It’s no good making people register their drones if there is no way of enforcing breaches. It might be possible to impose something similar to the law around nuisance vehicles in Section 59 of the PRA 2002 (snore). That law is pretty powerful and gives the cops the right to take away cars at the roadside. It also give the Police the right to enter a property to take it away if a warning has been issued. Maybe a system of bonded deposits might work. Who knows? What do you reckon?

Opportunities For The Private Sector

This legal morass and its attendant moral panic provides a few opportunities for the private sector.

The main opportunity is to create a powerful new drone which is 224.9g in weight, which can do most of what any other drone can do. As battery tech moves on, this will become possible I’m sure. It may also explain why DJI are focussing on making their drones smaller, not bigger at the moment.

The second opportunity is for the government and technical consultancies such as those based in and around the Cambridge area. That opportunity would be to develop some transponder technology using the GSM or 4G network. If each drone were mandated to relay accurate information back to an automated system, enforcement becomes realistic. Maybe that could be achieved by some sort of app on board the tablet if not a physical device.

If allied to a license regime, a system of fixed penalty notices could be devised for the registered owner where ‘strict liability’ is applied, not requiring any level of intent to prove the offence. This system could also relay information to air traffic if it was detected inside a ‘geofenced area’.  Obviously, if the system could include a kill switch, or be linked to a central intelligence system, high risk drones or drone operators could be identified and dealt with. A sort of beaurocratic drone strike.

The final opportunity is for existing training providers to jump on the bandwagon and create some new courses to sell to the drone loving public.

And Finally, Some Perspective

In Conclusion then, I’m supportive of the idea of training people and making them register their drones under some new drone laws. However, it is obvious to me that the Police will not be in a position to enforce any new drone laws. That responsibility will fall to others. A whole new regime of registration training and monitoring may be necessary. Especially as they become more available and more powerful.

On the other hand, let’s get real; no one has ever been killed by a drone. The threat (i.e what could happen) may be imagined as high by those with vested interests, or with a subscrption to the Daily Mail.  The risk (the likelihood of the threat happening) is demonstrably very low though .

Think about how many people are killed and seriously injured every year by horses and dogs, and you might start to wonder if a regime is necessary.

What do you think?



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