Baroness Randerson: The drone market is a bit like the Wild West. It needs some rules to make it safe

Posted On: 
26th February 2018

Near misses between drones and aircraft are on the increase. We need regulation before there’s an accident, says Baroness Randerson

A drone flies in Hanworth Park in west London, as a British Airways 747 plane prepares to land at Heathrow Airport behind.
Credit: 
PA Images

I am eagerly awaiting the first signs of spring, and not just for the delight of some good weather. Rather more urgently I am looking for the first signs of the long-awaited drone bill, which the aviation minister promised us we could expect this spring.

Drones offer huge new opportunities. Their military application is well known, of course. Already they are used by our fire, police and search and rescue services, increasing the opportunities to save lives without putting at risk the lives of others. They will be used by the new Elizabeth Line to check the safety of tunnels and are already useful in checking sewers. They can be used to deliver your online shopping, thus reducing traffic congestion.

Month by month they are used in new and wonderful ways, but in a sense we are living in a false dawn, because drones pose major challenges to our safety and security, and to our privacy. There is an urgent need for government action to control the purchase and use of drones, but they are moving at snail’s pace as the level of drone ownership and use grows so rapidly that the situation has moved effectively beyond control.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands were bought as Christmas presents last year. They are owned by hobbyists both young and old. Most are simply enthusiastic but very few have any training in safe use of their drone.

The most high profile danger is that they could be used in a terror attack. There have already been well documented cases of drones being used to smuggle drugs and mobile phones into prisons, and the police have dealt with cases where drones have been used to spy on people in their bedroom or sunbathing in their garden.

In 2016 the police dealt with 3,456 incidents involving drones; that was 12 times the number of incidents logged in 2014, so the problems – like drone ownership – are growing rapidly.

Possibly the greatest risk is to aircraft. Drones can smash the windscreen or break the rotor blades in the case of helicopters, which would bring the aircraft down. Research by Balpa, the pilots’ association, in conjunction with the government, has amply demonstrated this vulnerability to a drone simply being flown inexpertly or by someone foolishly taking a risk, rather than deliberately setting out to do harm.

Pilots reported 48 “near misses” in the first six months of 2017. In 2016 there were 25 at Heathrow alone. In July last year the skies around Gatwick had to be cleared because a drone was being flown too close to the airport – imagine the cost to the economy of the delays that caused.

Currently the drone market is a bit like the wild west – it needs some rules to give it structure and to make it safe. There are a host of actions the government needs to take seriously. A good start would be compulsory registration of drones and compulsory training for all users.

Mandatory geo-fencing around airports would seem to be obvious to avoid genuine accidents as well as deliberate terrorist attacks.

Currently air traffic controllers cannot “see” drones and instead rely on pilots physically catching sight of them as they whizz past, so we need investment in the best new technology to help air traffic control. Obviously there are resource issues for police and the CAA as well.

It has to be a multi-faceted response to a complex set of problems. The government has been thinking about this now for a year, following a lengthy consultation. In that time, drone ownership has increased dramatically and so have the number of “incidents”. A fatal accident would be a tragedy for those involved, and it would also do immense harm to the drone industry, which has so much that is positive to offer.

We need government leadership on this, we need legislation and we need it now.

 

Baroness Randerson is Liberal Democrat spokesperson for transport