Features - Business

What will stricter new laws mean for commercial UAV users in the UK?

Recent years have seen a huge uptake in UAVs, and a new survey suggests that more than half of all construction companies in the UK and Ireland make use of UAVs in their projects, mostly through external contractors.

Incidents over the past year involving UAVs at Heathrow, Gatwick and Newark Airport in America have led to talk of crackdowns on UAV usage and a lot of coverage in the media. One could easily conclude from this that opportunities for the commercial use of UAVs are going to become less frequent in the future – or at least become so heavily restricted that it becomes the reserve of the determined few.

With new regulations on the way in the form of the planned UK ‘Drone Bill’, Geomatics & BIM Manager at Wessex Archaeology, Damien Campbell-Bell looks at what these will mean and whether this prolific use can continue.

© Wessex Archaeology

Many of us first heard about the Government’s proposed law changes after UAV sightings at Gatwick in December 2018 grounded over 1,000 flights, caused disruption for 140,000 passengers and resulted in total estimated losses for commercial airlines of £50M. News articles announced a number of regulations in response, including mandatory registration, tighter restrictions on who can fly, and most significantly that it was going to be impossible to fly near any UK airport or aerodrome. This would have a major effect on where it is possible to fly, given that there are nearly 250 across the country.

Rather than being a hastily developed reaction, these new regulations actually come out of a consultation carried out by the Department for Transport last year, and so have been carefully considered. Media reports contained some already planned measures, such as the introduction of UAV registration in November, and new measures which were already set to be announced in early January.

What do the new regulations say?

The new measures do indeed increase restrictions to flights around airports and aerodromes, but they are only really an extension of requirements placed on UAVs over 7kg. Pilots of all UAVs will have to request permission from air traffic control to fly within 4.6km of an airport and within a 1km band extending 5km from the runway ends, where previously only notifying them was required for smaller UAVs. This doesn’t guarantee that permission will be provided of course, but in our experience air traffic control are happy for commercial UAV surveys to be carried out, so long as they are aware of them and they are not in a high-risk location.

The previously announced regulations focus on better tracking of UAVs and increasing safety and legal awareness amongst the UAV flying community.

Much of the rest of the planned new legislation focussed on increased police powers to deal with individuals and companies breaking the law (such as conducting commercial work without permission form the Civil Aviation Authority) or being irresponsible in UAV use. These include powers to seize UAVs, give fixed penalty notices, and compel pilots to provide documentation proving that they are obeying the law.

How will this impact commercial projects?

Ultimately the new regulations are there to increase safety, not reduce UAV use. Hopefully the amount of attention that UAVs have received lately will reduce the number of individuals using UAVs irresponsibly, but there will always be those that ignore the regulations, either wilfully or through ignorance; unfortunately, this can include commercial UAV operators too.

By making use of a company with a Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) and a strong health and safety focus, such as Wessex Archaeology, you can ensure that any survey you commission will be conducted professionally and safely. We have seven fully trained and licensed UAV pilots with extensive experience in undertaking UAV survey work, reconnaissance, recording and filming.

All signs are that UAV use will continue to increase, and with many projects still not taking full advantage of the 3D recording capabilities of UAVs there is scope to increase the value UAVs can offer.

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