I’ve been thinking about the weird, contradictory world of the law that governs the use of drones recently. If you are going to do drone pilot training, you’ll learn a lot about the so called drone laws. The drone laws in the UK come from two sources;
1. The Air Navigation Order – which is a relatively straightforward piece of criminal law. The basic maxim of which is that it is criminal to recklessly endanger an aircraft. Enough said. This bit of law is also referred to as CAP 393.
2. CAP 722 is the piece of guidance which determines the training given to drone pilots in the UK. If you want to undertake your drone pilot training you’ll need to learn quite a bit of it. If you want your drone pilots license then you need to abide by it. There is no such thing as a drone license by the way, it’s a ‘permission’. Any drone pilot in the UK needs to operate within the confines of CAP 722. However, I find CAP 722 to be a bit unclear and a bit odd at times. Here is why:
Drone Laws UK: The Congested Area Operations
Congested areas are basically everywhere that is not a large field. Anywhere with houses, or industrial units is considered to be congested. That pretty much covers everywhere you’d want to use a drone. In the sub 7KG category of drones (what most people use), the ‘standard permission’ allows the pilot to fly in them, within certain parameters. These are basically that you will not go within 50 meters of anything you are not in control of. This can be reduced to 30 meters. There is also a restriction requiring a pilot to stay 150 meters away from a group of more than 1,000 people.
You might think that sounds pretty straightforward, but I don’t really think it is. CAP 722 states quite clearly drones in the UK are allowed to fly within 50 Meters of something in a congested area. It then says in parenthesis that if the objects are under control of the pilot, they can fly within 30 meters. CAPP22 goes on to say that in any circumstances, flights directly overhead are not allowed in a congested area unless control of the object, structure, person etc is under control of the pilot. It’s on page 38, paras 3.25 3.26 ad 3.27
Drone Laws UK: The Concept of Control
What really is control? – If the subjects know I’m there? If I could warn them? It’s actually not really clear.
I’ve filmed on a number of building sites where there have been buildings and people within 50 meters horizontally.
I have considered them to be under control because there have been no doors onto the building site and no people could unexpectedly appear. I’ve also taken off where people have been within 30 meters of the drone. That’s because those people have been behind an 8ft wooden hoarding, well segregated from any danger. Anyone within that distance was briefed carefully. Observers were deployed. I believe that met the standard of safety, because anyone within 3o meters was well under control, even though they are closer to the actual drone itself. My flight plan on that occasion meant that I stayed within the boundaries of the segregated area at all times. CAP 722 doesn’t say they can’t come within that distance, only that they have to be under control.
My own view is that if they are within 30 meters in a congested area, but could clearly not encroach in an unsafe way, then they are under control. But that might be a controversial view.
Drone Laws UK: Final Thoughts
Drones are actually pretty safe. If you properly pre flight test them and make sure you aren’t flying over anyone who isn’t aware, the risk is remarkably low. Also, lets say a drone is doing a roofing survey – that is surely less risky than having scaffolding and people up ladders is it not? There has got to be some relative appreciation of risk – taking an absolute approach to risk management has strong drawbacks. Current regulations might be used to argue that scaffolding ought to be used, because a drone could not, if sufficient ‘control’ could not be gained. Such a decision only accounts for the risk from the drone, to the exclusion of all other risks. This is clearly wrong. Risk must be considered as a total equasion.
If drones are to be used in the future and improve our safety we need to take a broader view of their deployment. It’s ridiculous that the Police would need to abide by standard permissions to search for people using thermal imagers at night for example. The risk to a helicopter crew, the individual and to the public have to be considered as a total sum.
Drone Laws UK: Applying common sense
To put it in perspective – I could ride my mums horse to collect my kids from primary school and tether it outside the school gates as people walk past its hind end with absolutely no requirement for a risk assessment. Considering the amount of time my family have collectively spent in hospital or off work due to assaults by our equine friends, I think we need to take a sensible approach to drone safety.
However, I understand the other viewpoint – because the implication is that there should be a cordon distance. That’s why I take cordon tape with me and go through good briefing procedures on each occasion
In short, I don’t take the view that CAP 722 is there to restrict the (safe) use of drones. I don’t also mind that it is a bit vague, I think that is probably deliberate. It’s clear that the CAA needs a framework for authorising the use of drones. At the same time the drone laws in the UK probably need to be updated. The drone laws need to recognise the high standards of safety and manufacture in the most commonly used commercial drones. I also think that pre flight risk assessment should account of the ‘total’ risk of a task, not just the absolute risk of the drone as an individual component of a task.
That’s enough for now. Stay safe, it’s a sick world.