Regulating drone use: have we got the balance right?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), more commonly known as drones, are a technology whose full benefits are often overlooked. In the post-Brexit world, if the UK seeks to be a pioneer of technological innovation, the government should adopt a measured approach to drone regulation.

In general, a drone is defined as anything that that flies without a pilot on board. There are three categories of drones: recreational, commercial and private. The basic rules surrounding drone use are that the drone has to be kept in sight at all times, that it must stay below 400 ft, and that it cannot be flown within 50 metres of a person. There are also restrictions on what you can do with the images obtained from a drone as; for example, it is against the law to keep drone footage or images that break any government privacy laws.

However, the rule dictating that a drone cannot be flown beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) is an unnecessary obstacle to commercial innovation. Take the example of Costain, a British technology firm that has used drones to improve their surveying capabilities and efficiency, and to reduce risk to their staff on a series of highways and oil and gas projects. By using drones instead of helicopters to survey sites, Costain saved fifty percent in costs and captured the required data in less than four hours, as opposed to two days. Crucially, the risk to its employees working in a potentially dangerous environment was removed due to the versatility of the drones. Unfortunately, when Costain needs to survey larger pieces of infrastructure, such as power lines, the BVLOS rule means that they have to do multiple take offs and landings. The Civil Aviation Authority currently provides exemptions to the BVLOS rule if the user can demonstrate that other measures are put in place to ensure safe flying, such as a team of spotters in direct contact with the drone operator. In order to encourage more companies such as Costain to use drones more effectively, the government should consider increasing the number of exemptions granted to businesses in order to maximise efficiency whilst minimising risk to employees.

Even in the public sector, there have been promising examples of drone use. The UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has in the past used drones to help with investigations at the site of aircraft accidents. One significant advantage to using drones is their ability to fly close to trees and wreckage sites to take up-close images that otherwise would be difficult to obtain. Furthermore, drones are a cheaper alternative to hiring a commercial helicopter, whilst the images captured from the drone allow the AAIB to create 3-D models of accident sites using sophisticated photogrammetry software. The use of drones by both Costain and the AAIB, and their ability to maximise efficiency whilst minimizing risks to its employees, demonstrates that drones can be used by the public and private sector in a beneficial way.

One concern surrounding drone usage is the potential of drones to be used for criminal purposes. However, the government recognizes that although there are some drone users who intentionally break the rules, the majority of them do so unknowingly. Therefore, in order to increase awareness of the details relating to drone laws, the government launched a ‘Dronecode’ safety awareness campaign and is working with manufacturers and vendors to issue safety leaflets at the point of sale. Another effective tool is geofencing, where data is programmed into a drone to prevent it from going into restricted areas, such as airports.  Although some expert software engineers could, if they wanted to, break the program, geofencing allows ordinary recreational drone users to operate the drone within the confines of the law.

Ultimately, when used correctly, drones have a wide range of commercial benefits that can save its users time and money whilst improving the safety of its employees. If the government wishes to foster an environment where legal drone use is facilitated, it should remove obstacles, for example by increasing the number of exceptions it provides to the BVLOS rule. It should also develop targeted measures against those who intentionally break the law. If the government balances its two primary obligations – deregulating the market to encourage innovation whilst enacting rules to deter criminal behaviour – the UK has a chance to become a global leader in a beneficial and versatile technology.


Roberto White is an intern at the Institute of Economic Affairs. 

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