Policing the skies. New powers to punish drone misuse.

There are perhaps two key areas to address first and foremost in light of the announcement that the government will be issuing new powers to the police in order to “better enforce drone misuse and clamp down on malicious behaviour”. Firstly, while it might not have been entirely coincidental that the news broke a matter of days after the Gatwick Airport incident, this has come from a consultation period dating back to July 2018 – so while the timing was certainly convenient, this isn’t something that was cooked up overnight.

Secondly, the move could be seen as a heavy-handed approach, driven by a certain fear or lack of understanding from the wider public that will somehow punish the vast majority of law-abiding drone users. However, in reality a lot of the ‘new’ powers already exist across many other aspects of law enforcement, and the balance has simply been in translating those across to the drone industry in a fair, safe and clear manner. One common analogy has been to weigh up these measures with the current laws for owning and driving a car, only adapted to suit the specific technology and use cases from within the drone industry.

What are the Powers?

We’re paraphrasing to help simplify things a little, but here are the key areas that the police are being given the power to enforce…

  • To require evidence of a drone operator’s registration and/or a remote pilot’s Acknowledgement of Competency (when these come into effect from 30 November 2019), as well as other permissions or exemptions that may apply.
  • To obtain information, such as names and address, of operators and pilots if there is a “reasonable suspicion” of an offence.
  • If a drone operator cannot be identified, then the police can obtain the details of the person who supplied the craft to the pilot.
  • To request a pilot land their drone in “specific established offence circumstances”.
  • To enter or search premises, with a warrant, if there is “reasonable suspicion” of an offence.
  • To seize a drone and its components (camera, controller etc.) which the police “reasonably believes” to have been used in an offence.
  • To access digital data (such as flight logs, photos etc.) which the police “reasonably suspects” to be: Evidence of an offence, obtained as a result of an offence, or that could prevent it being “concealed, lost, tampered with or destroyed”.
  • Further to the previous point, the police can require digital data be produced in a “visible and legible form” if the police has “reasonable grounds” that those same scenarios apply. Operators will have up to seven days to produce the required data.

powers to punish drone misuse, man with a drone in a pathway

All in all, it’s quite an intimidating list but, as mentioned, these same general laws apply to someone driving a car (with a sat-nav replacing the drone’s camera, for example), so it’s not like drone users are being unfairly persecuted. We’re simply being faced with the same laws and level of enforcement as many other relatable industries.

The consultation report does acknowledge that there would need to be some further clarification on the specific wording and nature of the offences that would justify such measures. For example, the list above would relate to serious crimes from within the Air Navigation Order, and not the lesser and more general “misuse of drones”. For those there’s something slightly different…

Fixed Penalty Notices

Designed to avoid cluttering up the courts with all manner of misdemeanours, Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) are aimed at “less serious drone-related offences”. Much like how on-the-spot fines work for car drivers who undercut on the motorway or for people being drunk and disorderly in public, these can only be issued by police constables – so you won’t find park wardens firing these off at will. The listed offences so far cover…

  • Not being able to produce proof of registration, Acknowledgement of Competency or other relevant permissions or exemptions.
  • Failing to land your drone if requested to do so.
  • Air Navigation Order offences (such as flying within 50m of people with a camera on board) might also only merit a FPN if the constables believes there was no intent to: Endanger other aircraft, cause people harm or distress, undermine security in prisons, disturb public order or damage property. If intent is suspected then it would be charged as a more serious offence.

No figure for the fixed penalty has been confirmed, but the government has stated it will be below £100 (the consultation had suggested £100-£300 but this was largely lamented as being too high). It’s also worth pointing out that, as with the previous requests for information, the government is looking to introduce digital solutions for producing evidence.

As with many of these laws, there is some degree of flexibility and the good news is there is scope for a little common sense. So a police constable can use their own discretion to let such minor offenders off with a just a word of warning – with education and communication still the key ingredients for prevention.

powers to punish drone misuse, man flying a drone

Counter Intuitive

The report does also highlight the continued need for counter-drone measures, covering both the detection of drones and ways to affect the craft in the air in live situations. While it’s largely agreed that such measures are needed, there are concerns for the potential misuse, with calls for added safeguards and clarity on the specific wording of where and when such technology could be used.

Indeed, that’s very much where these new powers sit right now. While we can all agree that the police certainly needed greater clarity on what it can do to enforce the law, equally most drone users will want clarity on exactly where and when it would apply. There are concerns that these powers are somewhat disproportionate to some of the risks and so ensuring the police have both the resources and the education to make informed decisions on any given scenario is crucial.

Nobody wants to see stories of ignorant officers badgering law-abiding pilots – as any ‘over-enthusiastic’ abuse of the system could have a negative effect on the many responsible users out there. But by the same token, the vast majority of those responsible users seem happy that more needs to be done to eradicate the not-so-honest 1% who could well make all of our lives that much harder.

You can read the government’s full response to the consultation period at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/government-response-to-future-of-drones-in-the-uk-consultation.

 


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