Government investigates the future of drones in the UK

Regulatory Horizons Council research explores the opportunities and regulatory challenges around unlocking the domestic drone market

The UK government has released a report that analyses the implications of advancement in the drone industry and provides advice on the regulatory reform required to support the introduction of the technology.

Published by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) through the Regulatory Horizons Council (RHC), the report called for the government to set out a “compelling and short vision statement” alongside regulatory principles for drones over the next 10 years.

The research argues that even though some countries have progressed in commercial drone deployment, no single market has developed advanced regulation in the field, which “presents the UK with an opportunity”.

The report acknowledged that drones cause risk of accidents, collisions, intrusion, noise, terrorism and crime, but also argued that there are benefits to be missed in not developing them.

The potential the technology has in areas such as medical supplies, consumer deliveries, infrastructure inspection, agricultural surveying and environmental monitoring is emphasised in the report. It pointed out that drone development is taking place in a regulatory framework of existing rules for manned aircraft, which is in some respects not relevant to new technologies.

UK and domestic regulators, as well as entities in other markets such as the US, Ireland, Switzerland and Singapore, were consulted for the research, as well as the drone industry. Under five possible scenarios for the future of drones, ranging from “luddite” to “libertarian”, the report highlights the role of regulation, standards, geographical differentiation, accountability of operators, public engagement, security and prioritisation of use cases.

According to the report, some use cases should be prioritised more highly than others, based on the positive impact of the application of the technology and public acceptance. Examples cited are the delivery of medical supplies and search and rescue services, which are “perceived as most beneficial to society and least concerning to the public”.

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Flexible path planning based on artificial intelligence and improved detect-and-avoid technology are among the drone innovations that could bring “unexpected challenges and opportunities” in the next decade, the report noted. It said future-proofing for that scenario is needed, through flexible and “soft” regulation, in the form of industry codes, guidelines and standards.

According to the research, drone operating companies consider the regulatory burden to be a significant barrier to entry in the UK. This is due to factors such as the pace of technological development and the capacity of the regulator to handle a growing number of applications, as well as complex requirements.

Regarding advice to the government on how it can unlock drone benefits and support a wider commercial deployment through regulation, the research noted the UK’s congested airspace makes drone experiments difficult. It advises using remote and marine areas that could be used for that purpose, particularly for flights beyond the visual line of sight.

The report argues that commercial development of drones requires simpler and faster licensing processes with multiple vehicles per operator, as well as automated approvals of flight plans in pre-approved routes. It proposes the creation of “sandbox” opportunities, even though the authors recognise the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) presents legal constraints in doing so.

A review of the CAA’s funding model to “find a way for it to have a greater interest in supporting disruptive innovation” is also called for. The RHC also recommended a change in the approvals process for drones at the authority, with a greater focus on “direct engagement with drone operators to prove the commercial uses of the technology, as distinct from supporting the development of the technology”.

Another hurdle for drone development in the UK is the lack of mandatory electronic transponders on all users of airspace including private aircraft, the report noted. To address this, the RHC recommended the introduction of mandatory transponder zones for areas that explicitly prioritise drones, and that mandatory electronic conspicuity is introduced in the UK by 2025 or earlier.

Moreover, the recommendations in the report include an examination of the digital platform and data issues in the emerging market in Unmanned Traffic Management systems and their potential. This would be carried out by the Competition & Markets Authority part of its work on digital markets, in collaboration with the Civil Aviation Authority.

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