Baroness Randerson: There is a desperate need for action to regulate the UK drone market
Today Liberal Democrat Transport spokesperson Baroness Randerson will ask an oral question in the House of Lords regarding new regulations on the use of drones.
It was in February last year when I first called for drone legislation. I was clear even back then that this is a complex issue with no single silver bullet, but often politicians are much too slow to keep up with the issues brought about by modern technology. Unfortunately, as we saw with the chaos at Gatwick just before Christmas, this was once again true.
Despite my calls to regulate the wild west drone market, the Conservative Government have remained tone deaf until the travel of 140,000 people was seriously affected just days before Christmas. However, as experts in the field pointed out when interviewed by the media, it could easily have been much worse. Experts who are keenly aware of the risk’s drones pose were relieved that the Government are finally seeing the threat they pose, luckily without anyone being injured.
At Gatwick it took almost 24 hours for the army to be deployed, but when they were called in, they were able to tackle the drones effectively. However, this cannot become routine. Yes, airports such as Gatwick and Heathrow are now spending money on technology to deal with future drone incidents, small airports are less likely to be able to afford this and nor should they be forced to. Airports have a duty to develop a strong response and recovery plan, but it is not beyond reason for them to rely on the police when they are faced with the threat of drones in their airspace.
The risks of repeat incidents are only increasing. In 2017 there were almost 100 near misses reported by pilots and 3,500 drone incidents were reported to the police by the general public. These incidents are only increasing, illustrated by the fact that while passengers were struggling to get home for Christmas, hundreds of thousands of drones were being bought as presents with little guidance on safe usage.
The Government has made little progress, with drone legislation pushed aside by Brexit preparations, and the Liberal Democrats demand better. It is clearer now more than ever that there is a desperate need for action to regulate the UK drone market. That is why today in the House of Lords I plan to ask the Aviation Minister about the Government’s plans to regulate drones.
Whilst the Government’s plans remain vague and lethargic, the Liberal Democrats are clear about what we believe would help minimise the risks that drones pose.
In order to get a handle on the commercial drone market we need a wide-ranging set of regulations in place to ensure drone-based services can be offered safely. The compulsory registration of drones, akin to car registration, is also necessary to hold reckless and criminal users to account. None of this needs to be overly bureaucratic or costly. In the US their registration scheme cost only five US dollars.
However, as many no doubt are keen to point out, these measures would not have prevented the Gatwick incident.
Gatwick exposed that neither the police, nor the army were well prepared for such an incident and neither was the airport.
So that’s the crux of the issue with my question today. Whose responsibility is it to protect an airfield? Gatwick and Heathrow may now have the technology needed to defeat a drone, but whether they have the authority remains unclear. Equally, have the police and the army been given the additional resources they will need to deal with incidents like these? Within Government, is it the Department of Transport or the Home Office which responds to incidents? And where does the Civil Aviation Authority fit into all of this?
It is time the Government took some responsibility and started answering these questions.
Baroness Randerson is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and is the party's Transport spokesperson
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