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Drones flying through a grey area of law

Once reserved for the military, the increasing use of drones in both the commercial and leisure airspace has led to a debate around the need to formally regulate their use. The lack of law relating specifically to drones in the UK was addressed during this year's Queen's speech, which recognised the need for legislation and gave support to the UK's growing private and commercial use of such devices.

At the moment anyone in the UK can freely fly a drone provided the use of the drone meets certain criteria for use. Explicit permission is needed from the Civil Aviation Authority for use that exceeds 400 feet in altitude or further than 500 meters horizontally. To get permission to surpass these limits, a drone controller will need to show that they are 'sufficiently competent' to operate the drone.  

With the increase in the popularity of drones the CAA is now struggling to keep pace with the volume of applications for permission. Regulation that makes a clear distinction between drones operated by civilians for leisure purposes and drones operated by news media corporations, farmers or land surveying companies is urgently needed.  There is also a need to consider data protection law that was not drawn up with drones in mind and does not therefore address issues raised by the personal data both generated and used by drones.

The recent Queen’s speech unveiled legislation in the form of a Modern Transport Bill that will regulate the flying of drones and introduce safeguards that will, amongst other things, restrict drone use to geo-fenced locations, lead to the creation of a compulsory national register of drone owners and provide clarity surrounding insurance and third party liability regimes to monitor the compensation mechanisms for potential claimants.

The proposed new Modern Transport Bill is a step in the right direction for drone laws in the UK. Until it comes into force, we recommend that, for now, drone users should follow the CAA guidance to avoid risk of conviction for 'dangerous use' and financial penalties and have appropriate insurance in place to protect the drone users and others from injury, especially if the drone user has special permission for extended purposes. Furthermore, drone users should remain alert to data protection implications, especially when sharing footage of the drone's surveillance on social media sites or via other means.

Whether or not live international spectator events similar to the World Drone Prix held in Dubai will ever be held in the UK, the future is not clear. Nonetheless, before the UK can really take off and host live spectator events involving drones from around the globe, it is clear that various legal safeguards and solutions must first find ground.

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