UK publishes new drones rules

On 30 May 2018, with little fanfare, the UK government published new rules on drones operating within UK airspace. The changes come not from primary legislation (an Act of Parliament) but by way of amendments to the Air Navigation Order, existing secondary legislation through which drones are currently regulated.

Key changes

The first major change is that from 30 July 2018, drones of all sizes will be restricted to flying no higher than 400 feet above ground level. Currently only drones weighing more than 7kg are subject to that restriction. Drones will also be prohibited from flying within 1km of an airport or licensed aerodrome boundary.

Further significant changes are then due to come into force in November 2019 with requirements for mandatory registration and for demonstration of operator competency. The competency requirement is expected to take the form of online training and testing. The new rules will apply to all drones weighing more than 250 grams and to all operators of such drones. Failure to register or pass the online test will be a criminal offence, attracting a maximum fine of £1,000. The format of the test and other details, such as operator age restrictions, will be determined at a future date.

As part of the new rules, police forces will also be granted greater powers of enforcement. It is expected that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will take a lesser role in enforcement, focusing on any failure of a commercial operator to comply with the terms of its CAA permission.

Reaction

The new rules follow on the heels of a recent study by PwC predicting huge growth in drone use in the UK and a significant economic impact - by 2030 PwC forecast that there will be 76,000 drones in UK skies, contributing £42 billion to UK GDP. The timing of the amendments may, however, have caught many off-guard, particularly given statements by the government that a draft Bill was in the pipeline (the precursor to an Act of Parliament). However, the new rules closely follow changes proposed by the Department for Transport following its public consultation last year. Those proposals, together with an overview of global developments from an insurance perspective, were discussed in the recent docu-video produced by Insurance Post in association with Kennedys.

We expect the changes will be generally well-received by those with an interest in drone use, seeking to strike a sensible balance between protecting public safety without hampering the ability of industry to develop drone-related technologies and businesses within the UK. It remains to be seen, however, whether significant enforcement challenges for the CAA and police will arise under the new rules in due course.

Implications for insurers

Insurers should broadly welcome the changes. They should help reduce the likelihood of incidents in the UK and make the tracing of those responsible for operating drones involved in incidents more straightforward. Insurers who write drone-related products will wish to review their wordings to ensure that they reflect the new rules as those come into force.

Mandatory insurance requirements have not been introduced in the recent changes. Drone insurance requirements will continue to be governed by EU rules that currently apply to all aircraft within the EU (Regulation (EC) 785/2004). Under the Regulation, commercially-operated drones weighing up to 500kg must have a minimum third-party liability cover of 750,000 Special Drawing Rights (approximately £800,000). This only applies to non-commercial operators if the drone weighs more than 20kg. 

Comment

The changes will be widely welcome, although the full detail for implementation remains to be settled. They are unlikely to be the final word, however. Rules surrounding drone use in the UK (and elsewhere) may well see significant further change in coming years, particularly if the growth in drone use is as rapid as some have predicted. The EU is expected in the next few years to revise the EASA rules governing drone use, something that may affect the UK, notwithstanding Brexit. The rapid development of technology is also expected to transform radically the potential for operating drones of different sizes beyond line of sight and without direct human intervention, including in urban environments and at distances from people and structures not currently permitted. Such changes will pose challenges and opportunities for both legislators and insurers.    

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