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Regulating the UAV Industry: Current Status and Future Trends

by By Megan Roden at skytechevent. “Regulation” is the latest buzzword to emerge out of the UAV industry, with concerns over safety, privacy, data protection and liability all calling existing regulation into question. Recent increases in potentially dangerous UAV activity, including illegal flights over football pitches and narrowly avoided collisions with traditional manned aircraft, have also served to bolster concerns over the adequacy of existing UAV regulation. Whilst such debates are dominating the UAV industry at present, is UAV regulation really a cause for concern?

Current UAV regulation requires the following from UAV pilots. Pilots must maintain visual line of sight of their UAV at all times, with regulations limiting UAVs to flying no further than 500m horizontally from their operator’s position. UAVs cannot be flown above 400ft altitude in order to avoid collisions with manned aircraft. It is also illegal to fly a UAV over a congested area; regulations require that UAVs are not flown within 50m of any person or structure. Aside from following these rules hobbyist UAV users do not need to seek specific permissions for UAVs weighing up to 20kg. If you are looking to use a UAV for business or commercial activity, or you are flying a UAV fitted with a camera within congested areas or closer than 50 metres of any person or structure, you must obtain an aerial works permission from the CAA. In order to obtain an aerial works permission you need to gain a remote pilot qualification; pilot qualification courses are currently offered by two organisations, EuroUSC and Resource Group.

There have been increased calls in recent months for more comprehensive regulations than these to be implemented across the UAV sector. However, Joseph Dalby, Director of Flightpath Consulting and a Barrister at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square has commented that it is not a question of whether a more comprehensive system of UAV regulation is needed, but whether existing regulation is fit-for-purpose. Joseph has noted that ‘UAV Regulation is, like the UAV sector, at an early stage of development, and the main motivation is safety, as it should be…The approach is cautious and the intention is, largely, to restrict not enable activity whilst thinking, technology, and user demand evolves. Current regulations have also been relatively effective in the area of air safety. It has been based on segregation of UAV operations from controlled airspace’. He also went on to comment that ‘the basic principles are derived from commercial aviation and air space law. They are likely to remain unchanged. To that extent it [UAV regulation] is fit for current purpose, but a more comprehensive system is needed to facilitate commercial UAV growth. That will come through the issue of individual permissions for dedicated purposes’.

At present it seems fair to conclude that UAV regulation for commercial purposes is fit for purpose, remaining strict for the time being whilst the industry develops. Such regulations will continue to evolve as the industry and the technology do in order to ensure safe and effective integration of UAVs, however for the time being the system is effectively regulating the commercial use of UAVs without impinging too heavily upon their use for a range of applications. The area that needs work, however, and the field which has sparked many concerns amongst the public in recent months, is the hobbyist usage of UAVs.

Hobbyist usage of UAVs does undoubtedly complicate the process of regulating the UAV industry. Separating the hobbyist industry from the commercial UAV industry whilst still maintaining a safe and effective regulatory system is a substantial challenge for the industry. Achieving a balancing act between effectively regulating the hobbyist sector without restricting the growth of the commercial sector is the next step for the industry.

Far greater concern has been raised over the hobbyist use of UAVs in recent months in light of a number of incidents where UAVs have had close calls with traditional manned aircraft. Emeritus Professor David M. Bird of McGill University has highlighted the importance of further educating hobbyist UAV pilots about the risks and requirements of flying, noting that ‘not everybody can fly these planes easily. You need training to fly these UAVs but more importantly you need training to understand the language of pilots to fly the plane safely. How to read a map, what restricted aerospace means etc.’

On the subject of regulating the hobbyist UAV sector, Joseph Dalby has commented that ‘current regulation is commercially focused, and I think a gap exists with respect to non-commercial/hobbyist fliers…Safety regulation does not match risk, as hobbyists are most likely to operate recklessly. I would hate to see achieving a level of stability in the sector, at this embryonic phase of its emergence, being compromised by too many instances where havoc is caused by the recklessness of the unwitting hobbyists, who are ill-equipped or ill-trained’. He has also noted that recent increases in headlines regarding reckless hobbyist pilots ‘suggests there is a gap in respect of the regulation or enforcement of them, in respect to non-commercial drones’.

A newly established initiative, however, is working to change this. The Fly Safe, Fly Legal Campaign, established by Resource Group in partnership with the CAA, hopes to educate hobbyist users of the regulations surrounding UAV usage and the conditions needed to ensure UAVs are used safely. Whilst still in its early stages, if the campaign can replicate the success of a similar initiative introduced in the USA called the ‘Know Before You Fly Campaign’, the UK could see vast improvements in hobbyist knowledge of UAV regulation and the safe & correct practice for using UAVs.

UAVs also pose a number of other legal concerns which remain more of a challenge for the industry and require greater clarity within regulation. Such concerns include liability, risk, privacy, nuisance, trespassing and data protection. UAVs fitted with cameras are increasingly generating legal concerns over privacy and data protection; an issue which is becoming complicated by hobbyist usage of UAVs. Joseph Dalby has weighed in on this matter noting that, ‘clarity is required on what constitutes “commercial” operations, when it is not widely known or entirely certain that posting to social media & YouTube is a commercial activity, not least because it does not tie in with data protection laws. DPA provides an exemption for data captured “by an individual only for purposes of that individual’s personal, family or household affairs (including recreational purposes)”. So it is an important issue to address as UAV’s give hobbyists ability to capture personal data’.

Concerns associated with liability, risk and insurance are particularly complicated in regard to the UAV industry. Liability regulation is likely to incorporate UAV pilots’ duty of care to pedestrians, property owners and other airspace users, however it remains uncertain as to whether inexperienced users will be treated more or less harshly than qualified pilots. The extent to which criminal law will play a role in liability cases for UAVs is also still unclear; in recent months prosecution for improper UAV usage has begun to increase however the process is still at an early stage of development. Joseph has provided insight into the possible future for the role of criminal law within the UAV industry, commenting that ‘the obvious model to look at is motor offences: I can foresee offences of “careless flying” “flying under the influence of alcohol or drugs” and possibly “flying without a licence”…On the other hand, technological advances may shift the burden on to the manufacturer, who will attempt to reduce the incidence of pilot error. It depends on the effectiveness of autonomous navigation technology’. Insurance is also set to become a key element of UAV regulation. With specialised UAV insurance companies already emerging, including Coverdrone and UAV Protect, the industry is likely to move more in-line with motor regulation and enforce compulsory insurance for UAV pilots.

There have also been recent calls to enforce a higher threshold for safeguarding the public from UAVs in congested areas. Yet again, this issue presents a challenge to maintaining a UAV industry balanced between safe & efficient regulation whilst still enabling the commercial sector to develop. Joseph has commented that whilst a higher threshold for safeguarding the public is needed in some areas, this should not be at the expense of the commercial industry, and the ‘commercial use of RPAS within congested areas should be facilitated’. Instead, Joseph believes that greater responsibility should be placed upon UAV operators, noting that ‘operators must be able to commit to certain higher standards, and then they will be given more latitude to carry out operations without needing constant or CAA oversight for each operation. That means putting more responsibility in the hands of the operators, and being held accountable for wrong doings. So that the users self-regulate because of the threat of loss of licence, or punishment. Just like road users do. To that end, more thorough training, licencing should be in place. They will also have to have robust safety procedures in place’.

Legal concerns such as liability, data protection and risk undoubtedly require substantial attention within UAV regulation. However in the face of a newly developing industry, and complicated by increasing hobbyist usage, such matters do present a challenge to effectively regulating the UAV industry and are likely to remain a continually evolving process in the years to come.

A key step in the evolution of UAV regulation will occur with the development of comprehensive sense and avoid technology. Existing regulation enforces safe practice of UAVs by restricting UAV activity, including requiring line of sight operations and restricting the location of UAV flights. Sense and avoid technology would provide a key advance in the safety of UAVs. The technology would enable UAVs to automatically detect other aircraft and objects within their surroundings and permit the UAV to move should a collision appear imminent. As a consequence sense and avoid technology would increase the safety of UAVs, thus allowing regulation to develop and enable greater freedoms for UAV usage, particularly in the commercial sector. Professor Bird has highlighted the importance of such technology to the evolving UAV industry, ‘The thing we’re all looking for is the Holy Grail and that is a system called sense and avoid. That’s a little box that will go into every flying machine in the world including UAVS. As soon as something comes in range of this machine inside the UAV it will go the other way. That’s what we’re all waiting for but it’s not going to happen for another 4-5 years’.

Future UAV regulation is likely to be shaped by technological developments such as the arrival of autonomous UAVs. Joseph Dalby has commented that ‘achieving a regulatory framework in which autonomous UAV’s can operate will be a major milestone. True autonomy removes pilots from the equation, and instead the UAV will operate according to programmed algorithms. Autonomy is therefore very technologically dependent. Autonomous UAV’s must be able to navigate, sense and avoid. Most crashes are due to pilot error. Provided there is effective technology in place, autonomous UAV’s “may” lead to safety improvements. Significant R&D will be needed. Whereas current regulation is based on visual line of sight and constant oversight by the operator. Like with other areas, the regulation will have to walk hand in hand with technology in transitioning to the ultimate objective’.

Regulating the UAV industry is undoubtedly a difficult task. Current UAV regulation is not a cause for concern as is so often suggested. Regulations for commercial UAV usage are fit for purpose and are likely to become more relaxed as UAV technology evolves. Whilst hobbyist UAV usage and the impact UAVs have upon legal concerns such as liability do require greater attention, regulation is increasingly moving in this direction; criminal law for example is becoming more prevalent for improper UAV usage cases. Striking a balance between ensuring safe UAV usage without halting innovation is the challenge that will remain for this emerging industry. It is important to bear in mind, of course, that the UAV industry is still in its infancy and therefore so is the regulatory system that governs it. The coming year is likely to see substantial changes within UAV regulation. Commercial operations are likely to be afforded flexibility for larger projects, tougher enforcement when rules are breached will become more common place, and a more streamlined regulatory approach will develop. Another issue which is becoming increasingly more prevalent, and which could serve as a stumbling block to the development of UAV regulation, is the malicious use of UAVs. Recent episodes in the Paris Eiffel Tower area and Invalides have the potential to radically impact the entire UAV regulation debate. The security issues caused by possible intentionally malicious use of UAVs could result in the implementation of very restrictive regulations upon the industry and is certainly an area to watch over the coming months.

Regulation will continue to evolve as the industry and the technology do; as with other technological innovations an effective regulatory solution will no doubt be achieved. On this matter Joseph Dalby has noted that, ‘if we have done so with cars, aircraft and the internet, I have no reason to suppose it will not be achieved with drones’. To hear more about the latest debates within UAV regulation or for more information about requirements for UAV flights visit SkyTech 2015 taking place 24th April at the Business Design Centre London.

For more details about the Fly Safe, Fly Legal Campaign visit the website at