New drone legislation from the UK government will give police additional powers when it comes to unmanned aircraft.
This includes powers to require an unmanned aircraft to be grounded, to enter and search premises under warrant for certain offences where a drone is involved, and to issue fixed-penalty notices for drone offences.
The Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill was first introduced in 2019 and is currently passing through parliament having been “slowed a little” by the Covid-19 pandemic. It had its second reading in parliament earlier this year.
Currently, the main piece of legislation governing the use of unmanned aircraft in the UK is the Air Navigation Order 2016.
Speaking at Westminster eForum’s recent virtual conference on the drone sector, Rosanna Thomson, head of drones policy and legislation at the Department for Transport, said that the bill was part of government plans to encourage innovation in the sector while ensuring safety:
“There’s a growing recognition across government that of course there is a growing market for commercial and leisure use in the unmanned aircraft sector and there are some unique and beneficial applications of unmanned aircraft that of course we want to enable and encourage.
“What we want to aim for in society is unmanned aircraft being used safely and properly so protecting people’s safety and security, improving the delivery of public services, commercial services. We can only really realise all of the benefits of unmanned aircraft if they’re used in a way that protects safety, privacy and security.”
Drone legislation gives stop-and-search powers
The bill also sets out stop-and-search powers for police officers for specific drone-related offenses, as well as covering the use of counter-drone technology and the use of drones near prisons. It also grants more power to the Transport Secretary, particularly related to ensuring airports modernise their airspace.
However, Thomson explains that the bill aims to tackle drone misuse while also being proportionate, acknowledging that the majority of users are law-abiding:
“The bill aims to take a proportionate approach to enforcement so making sure that police and law enforcement agencies do have powers to tackle more serious offending but also that there are lighter touch mechanisms in place where offences are a bit less serious.”
She said that, when it comes to regulating emerging technology, it is vital legislation is communicated clearly:
“For any new and emerging technology to really grow and realise its full potential, it’s really important that the public have that assurance that it’s being used in a safe and proper way and I think one of the really crucial things that underpins that is having clear and proper regulations, making sure that each individual knows how they can safely and legally use their unmanned aircraft and making sure there are clear and effective enforcement mechanism in place.”
Thomson also acknowledges the importance of forward-looking legislation in this area:
“We’re continuing to horizon scan for the future and always have that balance in the back of our mind as to making sure that the regulatory framework we have currently is fit for purpose for the current landscape, but of course being allied to changes to what that might look like in the future and making sure that we have a legislative framework that enables that and keeps things safe and secure.”
In December 2018 a suspected drone sighting at Gatwick Airport caused chaos for travellers, although the existence of a drone was never fully verified.