Safe use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the UK

Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 23 March 2017.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must bring forward regulations on the safe use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the UK within six months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent.

(2) The regulations may include, but are not limited to, measures which—

(a) require all new UAVs sold in the UK to have inbuilt geofencing,

(b) establish the Civil Aviation Authority, as UAV regulator, to be the official authority on approving—permitting exemption—of “restricted areas” applied to geofencing, and

(c) establish the formulation of a registration system—considering exemptions for members of model aircraft organisations.

(3) In subsection (1) an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) refers to an aircraft without a human pilot on board with a weight of no more than 20kg without its fuel but including any articles or equipment installed in or attached to the aircraft at the commencement of its flight, and whose flight is controlled either autonomously or under the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle.

(4) In subsection (2)(a) geofencing refers to the use of GPS or radio frequency technology to create a virtual geographic boundary, enabling software to trigger a response when a mobile device enters or leaves a particular area.”—

This new clause instructs the Government to bring forward regulation on the safe use of UAVs in the UK, which could include: mandatory geofencing, and establishing a responsibility for the CAA as existing UAV regulator to approve restricted areas.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause instructs the Government to bring forward regulations within six months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent on the safe use of unmanned aerial vehicles—that is the technical term, but most of us know them as drones.

When the Government announced in the Queen’s Speech last year their intention to bring forward a modern transport Bill, it seemed to all of us that drones and the regulation of drones would be a key part of that Bill. When the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill was published, many eyebrows were raised at what seemed to many to be a missed opportunity for the UK to get in place a more robust regulatory framework for drones that will equip us for the future.

I say that because the drone market offers huge promise and potential for growth. That was recognised by the other place’s European Union Committee in a thorough report in 2015. Back then, there were already hundreds of companies—mainly small and medium-sized enterprises—using drones in photography, film, land surveying, building inspection, crop analysis and a number of other areas. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report in May last year estimated that the drone market may boom to more than £100 billion.

Drone technology could be at the very core of the fourth industrial revolution that we have discussed in this Committee. It will disrupt and transform current markets and has the potential to create new opportunities that, at this point, may seem implausible. For the UK to make the most of those opportunities, we need a regulatory framework that is clear, safe and secure. Failure to do so could result in the worst possible scenario: an avoidable drone incident that then leads to a knee-jerk regulatory response. We genuinely risk that coming sooner rather than later unless we act. In 2016, there were 70 reported near-miss incidents of drones being flown in such close proximity to manned aircraft that they could have brought into conflict. BALPA believes that the real figure for near misses may be much higher.

We have also heard from the Government themselves about the problems that drones cause to our prisons system, although there was an astonishing response from the Secretary of State for Justice, who said in a recent debate that dogs were being trained by prisons to try to deter the use of drones. I have not come across a drone, using whatever technology, that is particularly scared of a dog, but perhaps I am missing something. We are clear that we need a robust regulatory framework that prioritises safety but does not hinder innovation and certainty, which businesses need for the UK drone boom to which I have referred.

New clause 14 is a reasoned and flexible proposal that asks the Government to get on with developing proposals, while taking into account the hard work that is already being done by the Civil Aviation Authority and, indeed, the UK through the European Aviation Safety Agency. The new clause would give the Government six months to bring forward proposals. That should give the UK time to take full account of the recommendations that will be made by EASA, whose review is expected to be published in April—next month.

At this point, we should recognise that this is another area where EASA is demonstrably helping to shape the market, and consider the difficulty of our developing domestic solutions for the drone market without any say over the EU. That is a practical example of what we were talking about under the previous new clauses. The six-month deadline would also fit with the Government’s latest commitment to publish this summer their response to the all-encompassing drone consultation.

As for the more substantial criteria that the new clause sets and which the Government may consider—I emphasise that it is “may”, not “must”—we do not want to be binding. Rather, we genuinely want to be constructive in shaping the priorities of the future framework.

First, on geofencing, we recognise that that is not a silver bullet. Indeed, no measure will be 100% effective in preventing the kind of security risks to which I have referred, but a form of mandatory geofencing could help to minimise unintended flights into restricted areas. On that point, we recognise the efforts by the CAA and partner organisations to improve education and awareness through their recently launched drone code. That is a good start, which further measures such as geofencing should be able to complement. It is also worth noting that the technology is widespread and many leading manufacturers already include a capability for geofencing. Therefore, the grounds for seriously considering a form of mandatory geofencing are very substantial.

The second area is mapping regulation. We see that as a key area that needs clarification as soon as possible. Whether geofencing is mandatory or not, the technology is already being used to safeguard and protect many restricted areas, such as airports. However, for that to work, it relies on up-to-date mapping information, and that relies on third parties, including manufacturers, being responsive to permitting and exempting drone use in defined “restricted areas”. Subsection (2)(b) would mean the Government confronting that, with a view to giving the CAA the authority and responsibility for approval and overseeing official mapping of the kind that will need to be used for geofencing. I would be grateful if the Minister reflected explicitly on the need for mapping governance, because I do not believe that that featured in the drone consultation that the Government launched a few months ago.

Finally, on drone registration, that measure has already been introduced in the United States and Ireland. A form of registration after purchase and before first use was endorsed strongly by the British Airline Pilots Association in its oral evidence to the Committee, and in its written evidence. The premise is simple. Registration would achieve two objectives: raising awareness of the rules and improving traceability. At the point of registration, users would be exposed to the rules and perhaps have to complete a couple of questions about appropriate practice before the drone could be unlocked for use. The registration scheme could also help to identify owners. Currently, if a drone is airborne and in a place that it should not be, there is no means at all to track or trace it easily. With a registration scheme, drone users could be traced, which would reinforce the idea that owners and operators have a responsibility to behave safely.

None of the measures I am talking about is a silver bullet that will stop all threats of misuse or, worse, terrorist use of drones, but they are steps that could minimise misuse of drones. I am interested to hear the Minister’s response to my suggestions. On registration, perhaps he will reflect on the review that he and his officials have undertaken so far. Registration schemes are already in place in the United States and also some EU member states, such as Ireland.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe 12:45, 23 March 2017

May I begin by thanking the Minister for the kind invitation he extended to me on Second Reading to respond to the consultation? I regret that it had closed by the time I picked it up on the Monday before the Bill Committee and that he will not receive a submission from me.

I want to make a couple of points. First, in general I dislike agreeing with Opposition Members, but when I look at their clause, I think it is a pretty good start. I particularly endorse the principle of mandatory geofencing. There are two principles that we should apply. The first is an absolute approach to excluding amateur-flown drones from airfields. It is fair to say that that could be easily done with geofencing of regions as directed by the CAA, so I am attracted to those first two parts of subsections (2)(a) and (2)(b).

I am wary of registration because of the cost of registering, particularly as some of the drones available are, really, tiny toys and it would be going too far to implement a registration system for such things. The other principle I want to raise relates to the idea of applying a scheme such as one might have with the autonomous cars we have been discussing, where basically we allow progress to be permissive, provided people take responsibility for their actions. The Government might consider what kind of insurance might be made available for drones, and then the combination of insurance and geofencing might be the right approach to ensuring that people can make best use of those items of equipment.

I am incredibly enthusiastic about drones. I do not own one, but I am enthusiastic about them. They can be used for precision farming, for instance, and can revolutionise the way in which various things are applied to crops and the way that crops are inspected with various cameras in various frequencies. Videos that I have found are available on YouTube. Also, I could swear I heard a drone fly down the railway line next to my house early one morning. That struck me as an indicator that the example I used on Second Reading is not the only relevant to industry. My example was of the tiler who uses a drone to inspect roofs, because he would otherwise need to put up scaffolding at considerable expense. On the one hand, we can apply regulations for safety, which requires expense for householders and businesses; on the other, we must be cautious that we do not further exclude the solution to the regulatory problem by applying aircraft-style regulations to drones.

There is joy to be had in drones. This is not necessarily a dry subject. The photography that is possible with a drone is beautiful and artistic. I know that the Minister is a great fan of beauty and nature, so I hope he appreciates that if people wish to have a 360-degree aerial photo of their first wedding kiss, that is not something we should inadvertently prevent by over-regulating the use of drones.

Although I am substantively attracted to the idea of mandatory geofencing, with the CAA defining the boundaries—I certainly approve of that—I am also slightly concerned. We do not want to go ahead too soon and I would not support registration.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

Having a very large Amazon logistics distribution centre in my constituency, I wondered whether my hon. Friend had given any thought to how in future logistics companies such as Amazon might use drones to wing even more quickly than they do at the moment those things that those of us who shop on the internet seek to buy all the time.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

My hon. Friend raises a very good point. Only the other day, I happened to be walking through the corridors of the House when I discovered the former Member Lembit Öpik with Starship Technologies and their small-wheeled delivery robot. If that was scaled up and people were put in it, that would be the future of motoring that we have been discussing—my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire shares my despair at that prospect.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire is absolutely right. Why should we have slow, ground-based robots delivering things where people might trip over them and so on, when we could have unmanned aerial vehicles flying briskly through the air? Provided that they are safe and there are insurable risks, it is a jolly good idea that we should be able to innovate in those ways. I certainly endorse his point.

I have covered what I wished to say. I am genuinely excited about the prospects, in industry and agriculture and recreationally, that will arise from UAVs and drones. A few minutes spent by any Member on YouTube looking at what is possible with drones would cause them to share my enthusiasm. I very much hope that the Government, in considering the issues, will not over-regulate so that we lose the potential for joy and beauty that they will bring.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I spend a good deal of my life trying to take those I know and care for to the stars in all kinds of ways. Today, we have begun that journey. As I heard of dogs, I felt we should cast Pavlov in an entirely new light. It is right that we think of the changing technology in that broad-minded and far-sighted way, as illustrated in the contributions from across the Committee Room.

Drones are here and they are likely to stay. How we now cope with that is the question for parliamentarians. That is precisely why the Government have set about a consultation on these matters.

Attention was drawn to the evidence that was submitted to the Committee. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield emphasised that 70 incidents of drones being flown into conflict with manned aircraft have been reported to us. The concerns of BALPA and others that we need to do more are patent, on the basis of that evidence. What we do, and how we do it, is the purpose of our consultation.

There are several proposals in the consultation, all of which are designed to help the safety of the devices. They include the possibility of a registration scheme, making drones electronically identifiable and strengthening the penalties for breaking the law. The proposal for a registration scheme for all owners and their drones weighing 250 grams and above—whether bought new, second hand or home built—would obviously go a considerable way to dealing with some of the doubts and concerns that have been raised today, without jeopardising the whole existence of drones. I know that enthusiasts such as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe would not want us to do that. They may have virtuous purposes—we should not assume the use of drones is entirely a matter of threat and doubt—so the framework for drone regulation needs to create a culture of accountability among drone users, aid enforcement and enable direct targeting of leisure drone users on the law and safe flying. The data set that that kind of policy will produce will also be used to inform the policymakers of the future and to assess risk as the technology develops and changes. As I have said, safety is of paramount importance—I know that is a concern of the whole Committee.

I am unsurprised that the new clause has been tabled, given the character of the Bill and the importance of this problem—or rather the importance of this issue, if I might put it with that prejudice. There will be problems unless we get the regulation of drones right; that is clear from what has been reported to us in evidence.

When the consultation is completed and the Government produce their response this summer, we will have a chance to consider what further steps, including legislative steps, might need to be taken. To anticipate that outcome would not be appropriate at this stage. I hope Committee members will bear with us: there is a determination to take the necessary steps and ensure an understanding of both the opportunities and risks posed by drones.

To that end, it may well be that the matter can be raised again while the Bill is enjoying its passage through Parliament. I have to be frank and say that Members of the other House have expressed a number of the same thoughts, arguments and doubts expressed here today. When the consultation response has been produced, there will be further opportunity to take this matter on in the way that several have recommended. I think I had better stop there.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport) 1:00, 23 March 2017

The hon. Member for Wycombe rightly cautioned us to be wary of over-regulation. What is needed is appropriate regulation to ensure both safety and the right regulatory framework to promote and liberate the kind of innovation that drones offer. He was right to give that warning, but I do not think the new clause would have over-regulated; rather, it would have regulated appropriately.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response and I thank him for the very helpful briefing that his officials gave us about the work done on drones so far. There is useful work going on, but I would express a bit of frustration about the timescale. We have been asking for action on this for a considerable time.

The Government launched a good consultation, with a comprehensive consultation document that asked some pertinent questions, but everybody expected this to be an area that the Bill would cover. Frankly, the timing of the consultation and the Bill were matters entirely in the control of Government. Through the fault of no one other than Government. Those two things are now out of sync. We cannot put anything in the Bill because the consultation has not finished, but by the time the consultation has finished and its recommendations come out, we will have missed the opportunity to do anything about it in the Bill, if that were felt appropriate.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Perhaps I can take the heat out of the hon. Gentleman’s argument without taking the wind from his sails. The consultation was completed on 15 March. We will now consider that and, as I said, without undue delay we will bring forward our response.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful to the Minister. My wording was sloppy. I am aware that the consultation has finished, but we do not yet have the response to the consultation and its conclusions. Those are the kind of things we should have had to inform our deliberations on the Bill. We are facing a delay.

I take in good faith the Minister’s assurance that the recommendations that the Government will make in response to the consultation will come forward with as much dispatch as possible. I would simply say that we did not need to be here with that dislocation in the timetable. We are where we are, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 16