UK can be a ‘global player’ in drone systems if it gets regulation and enforcement right, says leading City lawyer

Rufus BallasterA leading City of London-based lawyer has said that the UK can be a ‘global player’ when it comes to drones and other driverless transportation systems, but only if it gets its regulatory and enforcement frameworks right.

Rufus Ballaster, a Partner at Carter Lemon Camerons LLP and member of the firm’s multidisciplinary drones and autonomous technologies team, commented after Freedom of Information responses obtained by the Press Association showed a large increase in the number of drone-related complaints made to UK police forces in the last year.

The Press Association research found that more than 3,456 incidents occurred last year involving drones, a considerable increase on the 1,237 incidents that were recorded in 2015.

“We are living in an exciting age of opportunity and we can dare to dream that the perfect mix of regulatory control driving up safety standards, but with a willingness to amend law and practice to enable innovation, will see the UK continue to be a global player in drone and other driverless transportation systems,” said Rufus.

While recognising the exciting opportunities that drones and autonomous technologies present, Rufus is clear that there are potential problems arising both from irresponsible piloting and from disputes arising from misunderstanding of the law around privacy.

He said: “Many minor – or not so minor – offences are carried out by drone users across the UK and many unfounded complaints are made by people who think that all private data gathering is an unlawful breach of their privacy.”

The current regulations mean that drones can be operated for commercial use with a relatively simple consent process being undertaken. This is not a ‘permission’, nor is it related to specific ‘action’ by the user, but it does require reasonable knowledge of regulatory framework concerning unpiloted flying objects.

Privately used drones under a certain weight can be used without prior CAA consent being obtained, but within strict limits concerning proximity to people, buildings and crowded areas.

Rufus said: “In view of this, there will be many complaints where a person thinks a drone is ‘spying’ when in fact the device is perfectly lawfully engaged in providing its owners perhaps with valuable commercial data in a regulated environment, or perhaps just with the fun which hobby users gain from flying their drones, often entirely lawfully.”

He added that this creates particular regulatory and enforcement challenges for the authorities.

“If feel sorry for the Police, as they are expected to react to complaints and investigate allegations of unlawful activity, but they must also prioritise their efforts in order to ensure that serious crime is deterred, which can mean letting a wide range of minor infringements pass or result only in informal warnings,” said Rufus.

In contrast, the use of drones in delivering drugs or weapons into prisons is a known problem – though many more illegal items enter prisons by other means.

Rufus said: “Clearly the fight against crime requires that sort of activity to be investigated and, if possible, prevented.

“By comparison, a group of enthusiasts flying a drone race in a public park can and should, if police resources enable this, result in a ‘ticking off’, encouragement to read the Drone Code more properly and to find a lawful place for that activity. But unless it is repeated or causes a specific threat to members of the public, it surely is not something which needs to take court time, or which should result in a criminal record for the user.

“The UK needs skilled drone remote pilots for this sector to flourish and discouraging private use is not likely to help hone those drone skills.”