Timothy Compston takes a closer look at drones as the number deployed goes sky high and asks whether more regulation is needed.
There is little doubt that drones, or Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS), have moved on in leaps and bounds in recent years as evidenced by the interest being shown in the associated technology by legislators, with a recent House of Lords committee report being a case in point. The attraction of drones from a security, policing and military perspective, is, of course, the potential to obtain a bird’s eye view when assessing the security of a location and to provide real-time information back to control rooms, and personnel on the ground, as a situation develops, so allowing resources to be deployed in the most intelligent manner possible.
Set against the more positive aspects of drones, sadly the past year has also served as the backdrop for a series of malicious and reckless incidents. Not surprisingly the associated media headlines have merely served to fuel concerns over the widespread availability of this technology – which at the most basic can be picked-up for a few hundred pounds – and lead to calls in some quarters for tougher regulation. An example of the sort of situations which have put drones under the spotlight like never before include, from a public order perspective, the Serbia versus Albania football match in Belgrade where a flag was flown into the stadium leading to altercations between players and fans. Added to this, the security of critical infrastructure was also brought into sharp relief when unidentified drones over-flew seven of France’s nuclear plants.
Turning to questions about the regulatory framework for drones, Mike O’Neill, who is managing director of BSIA (British Security Industry Association) member company Optimal Risk Management and chairman of the association’s Specialist Services Section, explains that, in a UK context, any drone that takes-off for a commercial purpose the ‘pilot’ requires a CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) licence: “This is where you are getting paid or there is an element of commercialism. You have to ensure that you carry proper insurance as well.”
O’Neill adds that there are other requirements to adhere to such as not going within 100 metres of an organised group of more than 1,000 people. Sadly O’Neill reports that not all security companies, who say they can provide drones to monitor events, take account of these limitations.
Following up with Richard Taylor from the CAA about the situation regarding drones, when I interviewed him late last year he was keen to emphasise from the outset that whether flown recreationally, or for any kind of commercial reasons, there are strict distance separation rules in place: “The first requirement is to keep the drone at least 50 metres away from any person, structure or vehicle that is not within the control of someone operating the unmanned aircraft.” Another main element, explained Taylor, is the need for unmanned aircraft to remain within line-of-sight at all times.
In the wake of an unidentified drone coming close to an Airbus A320 at London’s Heathrow Airport, Taylor was quick to stress that large unmanned aircraft over seven kg are not allowed to fly in controlled airspace. Taylor goes on to say that it is important to set the dangers posed by small drones into perspective, saying, “At UK airports we have only had two incidents this year  against close to three million aircraft movements.”
Taylor also suggests that technology is a step ahead here in terms of providing solutions and points to the fact that the Chinese company – DJI – responsible for the popular Phantom quad-copter has introduced what he refers to as ‘geo-fencing’: “This is a factory set procedure which limits the device from flying in the vicinity of airports.”
Discussing whether the existing regulation of drones needs to be tightened, Taylor was convinced, when we spoke, that the balance is about right at the moment, saying, “We [the CAA] think that the current rules are appropriate to the level of risk, they allow hobbyists to enjoy their activities and for a robust commercial sector to develop. Our job is to protect members of the public and manned aviation and that is what the rules do so long as people stick to them.”
A global view
A person with his finger on pulse of drone regulation internationally is Dave Kroetsch, CEO at Aeryon Labs. In fact, his Canada-based company, which specialises in the manufacture of small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), supplies more than 80% of its systems to a burgeoning export market.
He said, “Where commercial activities are being undertaken in a more regulated airspace we see rules that are not that different, whether from Transport Canada or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).” Kroetsch goes on to explain that they (the regulatory authorities), typically, want some element of pilot and airspace knowledge, saying, “They are generally restricting operations to a certain distance and radius from the operator, and in good weather conditions, and there are requirements for visual line-of-sight and daytime operations. That is a pretty common set of base parameters that gives you relatively safe operation.”
Discussing the misuse of drones, Kroetsch reflects that, in his words, ‘there has been a fair amount of push-back’ because of the number of incidents that have happened.
“You are seeing everything from music festivals to places like the Yellowstone National Park saying that they are now ‘no drone zones’,” he said “The regulations the FAA has enacted for commercial operations will limit a lot of that. It is the people operating under ‘hobby’ guidelines who are the ones most impacted by and causing this kind of trouble.”
What Kroetsch is seeing from a regulatory perspective is a twin track approach which reflects some of realities on the ground. “They are saying we will regulate the commercial operations and we will try educational campaigns around recreational applications. We know that we are not going to be able to take away the permissions that the hobbyists already have. A good example of this was what Transport Canada and the FAA did about providing drone safety reminders around Christmas.”
Bridging the gap
Adrian Kent, director at BSIA-member company CTR Secure Services – a security and risk consultancy – which also has a drone arm (CTR Drone Services), agrees that there is a knowledge gap that needs bridging. He said, “The problem is that even if they are not in the security industry you don’t want people going out and buying £500 drones, and putting them up in the air, and causing a bad name for professional operators and the Government then sitting up and putting restrictions on the use of drones. That would put a lot of people out of business as well who operate UAVs either for security or in any other sector. I would prefer if people were communicated with and had a better understanding of the legal complications before going out, and not having licensing or insurance, and buying a drone and doing something hazardous with it.”
In the view of David Allison, who is managing director at Octaga Security Services Ltd, regulation makes sense if you want to support good practice and keep criminal and terrorist elements in check. He said, “There is a real positive side where they [drones] can be used by security providers to enhance the technology level they offer to customers, from big private estates to corporate sites, however there is also a more sinister side out there that means we need strict regulation.”
It is perhaps not too surprising given the heightened attention being given to drones, that the subject is high on the agenda for legislators in the UK and beyond. Case in point is the European Union (EU) Committee of the House of Lords, which recently published [March] an in-depth report considering the ‘Civilian Use of Drones in the EU’. The report recognised that drones, or what it refers to as ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS)’, are no longer the preserve of the military and that they are in fact being used by hundreds of companies to provide commercial services.
In a summary of its findings, the committee set out its belief that RPAS have the potential to ‘revolutionise the aviation industry’ and that Europe needs to ‘act now in order to reap the future benefits’. The report set out to evaluate plans by the European Commission to make the continent a global leader in RPAS. The committee came out in support of the Commission’s aims to have an internal EU market for the commercial use of RPAS with safety rules through the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Joint Authorities for Rule-making on Unmanned Systems (JARUS). The committee was, however, adamant that any changes should avoid in its words ‘stifling’ the existing RPAS industry – primarily small RPAS under 20kg – and was therefore of the view that any safety rules should be applied in proportion to any risk and, crucially, that member states should have a degree of flexibility with regards to small RPAS regulation.
On the data protection front, the committee was clear that any legislation should remain technology neutral so it can be applied to the ‘unique characteristics’ of RPAS. Regarding leisure users, the committee flagged up the danger that misuse here could actually undermine public acceptance of the technology, consequently it offered support to plans by government to raise awareness of safety hazards through the media and information leaflets. Looking to the future the committee also thought that for the UK the police could, potentially, be given a greater enforcement role.
A balanced approach
So to conclude, the likelihood is, given the current direction of travel, that the number of drones being operated both in the UK and worldwide will continue to soar. The hope has to be that with a combination of appropriate risk-based regulation for commercial users, the integration of technologies like geo-fencing to keep systems away from critical locations like airports and critical infrastructure, and strong public information programmes that any threats to the reputation of the technology due to poor practice, and such systems falling into the wrong hands, can, as far as possible, be mitigated.
Timothy Compston is a freelance journalist and PR consultant.