Select Committee Drone Report 'a rather mixed-bag'

Kent Law School's Dr Alan McKenna has described the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee's Report into Commercial and Recreational Drone Use in the UK as 'arguably a rather mixed-bag in terms of its findings and recommendations'.

Dr McKenna is one of the UK’s leading experts on new developing technologies such as drones. In response to the report, which was published on 11 October, he said:

Positively the Report recommends that the Government conduct a review into the controversially high cost of its new drone registration scheme, with the proposed annual cost of £16.50 needing to be fully justified. It also recommends that the Government consider allowing organised flying clubs are able to register as a single entity, rather than burdening club members financially with a separate registration requirement as currently proposed.

‘As regards the likely impact of the registration scheme, the Report states, ‘The Government should acknowledge that the proposed scheme will do little to mitigate the risks from nefarious drone users who will simply bypass registration and testing’, but it then goes on to recommend that a sliding scale of penalties for failing to register be introduced that would culminate with a custodial sentence. This is a very questionable recommendation, as clearly if it is accepted that deliberate criminal use of drones will not be deterred by a registration scheme then it must be asked what is the point in introducing a provision as severe as a prison sentence for non-registration?

‘A further questionable matter comes with the recommendation that the Government introduce a specific criminal offence prohibiting the weaponisation of a drone. It may be questioned again what purpose this may serve? Defining weaponisation may prove problematic, but as well it can be argued that there is no actual evidence of the need for such legislation and indeed existing legislation should be sufficient. This proposal unfortunately enables elements of the media to create sensationalist headlines and stories, as can be seen for example by the Daily Telegraph story on the Committee’s Report, which can exacerbate negativity surrounding drones.

‘The Report highlights the current challenges faced by drone operators when seeking permission to fly within airport Flight Restriction Zones, with there being no standard practice across the airport sector on how such permission may be granted, and it is recommended a standardised and unified system of access request be created. Evidence was submitted to the Committee showing that at least one airport is currently charging drone operators to fly within its air restriction zone. It can be argued that whilst an airport’s operations may be protected by the created zone under the applicable ANO provisions, the fact is the airport does not as such ‘own’ the airspace within its restriction zone and allowing it to charge to fly within that air space cannot be legally justified, and to continue to allow an airport to charge potentially could give rise to wider associated attempts to privatise air space.

‘Also, sensibly, given the controversy that has arisen over the potential severity of damage that might be caused to manned aircraft by drones, the Report recommends that a full risk assessment be carried out by the end of 2020.

‘The Report highlights what appears a failure by Government to have a co-ordinated plan to achieve the benefits of drone technology, and recommends the provision of a clear roadmap for future drone integration into UK society.

‘The Report concludes by pointing to the perceived public distrust towards drones and the need to address this, but it appears to recommend a possible solution based on talking ‘at’ rather than ‘with’ the public, stating, ‘The Government should act to improve public perception and awareness of drones by launching a public awareness campaign, no later than Summer 2020, that highlights the opportunities presented by drones and informs the public on the reality of the risks posed by drones.’

‘Whilst the Select Committee have identified a number of important matters and made recommendations on these key issues using fact and reasoned analysis, it is unfortunate that there are also aspects of the Report and its recommendations that are based not on fact, but rather on unsubstantiated opinions, some of which arguably are merely headline grabbing sensationalism.

‘Although the Report appears to seek to achieve balance between at times very differing perspectives and vested interests, it is disappointing how the public are rather side-lined, when it is acknowledged how important they are.’