As Prince Harry and actress Meghan Markle announce their engagement today, equally thrilling news is also breaking across Britain: new laws forcing drone operators to register.
The new law will make it illegal to fly a drone weighing more than 250 grams unless you have registered with the government and passed various safety tests.
In addition, police will be permitted to seize drones and parts thereof “to prove it has been used to commit an offence”, demand to see drone operators’ registration documents, and will also be allowed to force operators to land their craft immediately.
In what appears to be a British governmental first, civil servants say they will also make it a legal requirement to use drone safety apps – in this specific case, almost certainly the NATS Drone Assist product.
Baroness Sugg, a junior transport minister, said in a statement this morning: “The draft bill will build the regulatory framework to ensure these apps meet required standards and issue correct information.”
She added that the powers “necessary for registration and leisure pilot testing” would be introduced through amendments to the Air Navigation Order, which is the main law governing British skies.
“I think it’s a really good idea at any weight, 250g or even smaller to be honest,” drone operator Nik Fox of Cloud9 Aviation told The Register. “However, I do have concerns at the CAA’s ability to manage that process because as they have already demonstrated with us PFCO holders, they are very slow to do anything.”
Fox added: “Giving police the right to 'ground' any drone when they see fit is a potentially dodgy area. As someone who works in the media industry on breaking news, I've had my fair share of police harassment when I've been filming.”
He said: “Registration is all well and good, but how are we going to ensure that drones ARE registered, and that identification markings / registration numbers are displayed & not removed? What is the mechanism for ensuring those registrations are correct, maintained & most of all, can be followed up on after the event if an unlawful flight is reported?”
A Permit for Commercial Operations (PfCO) is the licence drone operators must currently hold. Some in the drone community see the current registration requirements as effectively optional thanks to patchy enforcement efforts.
Christian Struwe, Chinese drone-maker DJI’s head of public policy in Europe, cautiously welcomed the plans, highlighting features built into the company’s drones, including “mandatory altitude limits, automatic return-to-home systems when drones lose contact with their controllers, and our geofencing system that uses GPS navigation to help pilots steer clear of airports, prisons, power plants, and other sensitive locations,” and the company’s recently-announced DroneID framework.
Drone hackers have consistently pointed out that DJI’s technical measures are only good enough to capture the “average Joe” user and not the sort of person who wants to avoid being tracked.
Ian Hudson, another licensed drone operator, told The Register that the new laws “weren’t entirely a surprise” but that, based on the Sunday announcement, the measures were “a mix of good and bad.”
“The truth of the matter is the UK is already 10 years behind the rest of the world in the drone technology sector. Whilst we have businesses flying drones, they are flying Chinese, American or French technology, whereas in the 80s we led the home computer boom. We’ve likely already missed the boat and won’t have a key role in the drone industry,” said Hudson. ®