A crackdown on drones will come into force next year following repeated near misses with aircraft.
The draft Drone Bill, due to be published in spring, will require drone operators to register a flight plan via an app, which will determine if the drone can be used “safely and legally”. Police will also have the power to ground drones or seize them as evidence when criminal charges are brought. The government is also considering a ban on drone flights above 400 ft (already in place for drones weighing more than 7 kg) and using ‘geo-fences’ to create no-fly zones around airports and other restricted areas.
Peter Zheng, a PhD student in Imperial’s Aerial Robotics Lab told Felix: “This new focus on geo-fencing really does help enthusiasts keep themselves safe, and keep other people safe.
“For researchers, it’s really good to develop geo-fencing technology and guidelines. This will help us be aware of where we can safely test our technology; being aware of this helps us to be safe.”
The government also recently announced plans to create a registry of owners of drones weighing more than 250g. These operators will also be required to take safety awareness tests. A collision with a drone weighing 400g would be sufficient to critically damage a helicopter windscreen and a 2 kg drone could have the same effect on airliners.
“This law comes in at a good time, when the UK is just starting to explore commercial uses of drones,” Zheng said. “All of the developments around the safety of drones allow the public to be more engaged with this community (of drone users). That’s also good for researchers: there will be more exposure and people will be more inclined to use the technology.”
The rising popularity of drones over recent years has caused the number of near misses to double, with multiple incidents occurring each week. Current regulations require drone operators to maintain “direct unaided visual contact” with their drones in order to prevent collisions. Between January and August 2017, the Civil Aviation Authority’s Airprox Board investigated more than 60 incidents between drones and other aircraft.
A large drone passed an Airbus A319 as it was landing at Gatwick. The incident report said: “A larger aircraft might not have missed it and in the captain’s opinion it had put 130 lives at risk.”
It is not just recreational drones that face problems. In September the British Army lost two reconnaissance drones that crashed into the Irish Sea. The drones were part of the Watchkeeper programme. In 2005, the UK ordered 54 drones at a cost of £847 million to provide surveillance for troops. The programme was due to begin in 2010 but following numerous setbacks, the drones have only had a brief deployment in Afghanistan. A report in July 2017 by the UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority stated the Watchkeeper programme had so far cost £1.1 billion.