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Extra powers against drone misuse

Lessons have to be learned from what happened at Gatwick, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has admitted. To combat drone misuse, new law will give police officers the power to land drones and require users to produce proper documents, he told the House of Commons. The police will have the power to search premises and seize drones — including electronic data stored within the device — where a serious offence has been committed and a warrant is secured.

Chris Grayling made a statement in the Commons on January 7. While this comes after the notorious closure of Gatwick Airport before Christmas, the Government ran a consultation last summer on how to regulate drones. Sussex Police are still seeking those behind the drone sightings near the airport, which Grayling called ‘hugely irresponsible’.

He said that the Department for Transport is ‘is working extremely closely with airports, the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Civil Aviation Authority and the police to make sure our national airports are fully prepared to manage any repeat’. He said that the Ministry of Defence remains on standby to deal with any further problems at Gatwick or any other airport.

Despite the embarrassment of more than 100,000 passengers having their travel disrupted, that the Times on their front page described as a ‘farce’, Chris Grayling spoke of the UK’s ‘world-leading position in aviation safety and security’ (as does Aviation Minister, Liz Sugg, in the Government’s response to the consultation). The Gatwick affair, he said, ‘reinforced the fact that it is crucial that our regulatory and enforcement regime keeps pace with rapid technological change. ​We have already taken some big steps towards building a regulatory system for this new sector. It is already an offence to endanger aircraft. Drones must not be flown near people or property and have to be kept within visual line of sight’.

On the all-important question of how to bring misusers of drones to justice, to deter repeats of Gatwick, Grayling did not give any specifics. While he said the Government had been working with the regulator the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and NATS (National Air Traffic Services) to develop the optimum exclusion zone around airports, he admitted that any restriction zone would not have prevented a deliberate incident such as Gatwick’s. He said: “It is of course crucial that our national infrastructure, including airports and other sites such as prisons and energy plants, are also adequately protected to prevent incidents such as that at Gatwick. We must also ensure that the most up-to-date technology is available to detect, track and potentially disrupt drones that are being used illegally, so we have also consulted on the further use of counter-drone technology.”

He did make the point that new laws were unnecessary – the punishments were already enough for those brought to justice – and that ‘the issue was solved only by the smart and innovative use of new technology’, that for security reasons he did not detail. (Among other laws, under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act (1990), intentional use of a
device to commit an act of violence at an international airport which causes or is likely to cause death, serious personal injury and endanger safe operations could result in life in prison.)

Baroness Sugg said: “Drones have the potential to bring significant benefits and opportunities, but with the speed of technological advancement comes risk, and safety and security must be our top priorities. That’s why we are giving the police powers to deal with those using drones irresponsibly. Along with additional safety measures these will help ensure the potential of this technology is harnessed in a responsible and safe way.”

From November 2019 drone operators will be required by law to register. The police will be able to issue fixed-penalty notices for minor drone offences; fines of up to £100, for failing to comply with a police officer when instructed to land a drone, or not showing their registration to operate a drone.

However, as some told the consultation, any amount of powers would not stop those intent on breaking the law.

For the Government’s response to the consultation visit https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/government-response-to-future-of-drones-in-the-uk-consultation. Airports and airlines told the consultation that the current 1km restriction does not extend far enough to ensure that manned aircraft do not come close to a drone if the drone is flying at the maximum 400ft allowed.

A Government suggestion that drone users should use of a Flight Information and Notification (FIN) system and notify the authorities of a flight via apps did not go down well and the Government pulled back from it, as users complained that it would be too restrictive and checks were not practical anyway (would any criminal bother to file through FIN?!). Replies also raised concerns that a FIN regime would either be an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, or run by a private company.

From the security viewpoint, on the all-important deploying of ‘counter-drone technology’, replies to the consultation warned of risks to legitimate users, and the Government in reply admitted ‘significant sensitivities and complexities in setting standards for and authorising use of this technology’. Some replying to the consultation raised concerns over private security managers using counter-drone technology rather than the police or prison managers. Some also queried how private use of the tech would have oversight, if innocent users had their drones damaged. And what of the potential for collateral damage? When would it be ‘necessary and proportionate’ to bring down a drone? Jammers could create a greater safety risk than the risk it is claiming to mitigate, some warned.


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