The global race for drone regulation

by Inline Policy on 27 Jun 2014

About a year ago, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon were testing unmanned drones – called Octopers – to start delivering packages to customers in five years’ time. This announcement gave Amazon a PR boost; and was perhaps also initiated in the hope of raising awareness around businesses being given authorisation to use drones commercially.

According to the US drone industry, regulation is necessary for it to be profitable, as current regulations in most jurisdictions prevent unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from flying over densely populated areas.

As drones become more affordable and widely used, regulations across the world will determine whether this innovative technology flourishes or falters. 

The controversial use of drones

There are two main uses of drones, namely for surveillance and military purposes. The latter has courted much controversy and raised a number of new questions, as illustrated in a report to the UN, in which Special Rapporteur Philip Alston said: “the US government should specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture particular individuals …. And should make public the number of civilians killed as a result of drone attacks, and the measures in place to prevent such casualties”. As warfare becomes safer and easier for combatants, the military use of drones will need to be addressed, both at the national and international level.

Other industries in which drones can be used include agriculture, film, photography, advertising, police (mainly law enforcement), monitoring of offshore energy infrastructures, or logistics. The latter has recently been addressed by companies such as Amazon and Domino’s. In Germany, Deutsche Post DHL is testing a “Paketkopter” drone in order to potentially deliver packages to places which are hard to reach. Google has recently acquired Titan Aerospace, a start-up in the business of high altitude drones.

Regulatory measures already taking shape in the US

This week, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) in the US stated that the delivery of packages by “model aircraft,” for commercial purposes, is not allowed, at least for now. This is no surprise, especially if we consider an investigation from The Washington Post, which revealed that in the US alone since 2012 there have been 15 cases of drones flying “dangerously close” to airports or passenger aircraft, in addition to 47 military drone crashes since 2001 and 23 civilian crashes since 2009.

Nonetheless, following drone industry complaints that they were losing $27 million a day, Congress ordered the FAA to issue rules legalising drones for commercial purposes by September 2015, as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. In fact, Congress requested the FAA to develop new rules so that businesses could unleash the potential of drones whilst ensuring compliance with all necessary safety standards.

Although the use of drones for commercial purposes is banned at present, on June 10 the FAA granted BP the permission to fly drones. This is the first time a company has been granted such permission.

Some US states have already regulated the use of drones. North Carolina, for example, has just approved a bill that would regulate unmanned drones and would prohibit the use of such tools for surveillance of individuals, or private property without the owner’s consent. It would, however, allow the use of drones for counter-terrorism purposes.

Europe: a hub for drone regulation

Sweden, France and the UK have already approved regulation to allow private drone operations. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has banned the use of all drones which are heavier than 20kg from flying in civilian airspace. Drones which weigh less than that can be flown normally, as long as any data or images from the flight are not used. The drone must also remain at least 150 meters away from people.

There are also commercial projects in the testing phase in Germany. Italy has just issued new regulations on drones. In Spain, the Ministry of Public Works is currently drafting a decree that would allow the commercial use of drones in non-urban areas (unless a specific authorisation is granted). In Ireland, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), irrespective of their weight, cannot be operated without the written permission of the Irish Aviation Authority.

In April 2014, the European Commission announced that it was proposing ‘new standards to regulate the operations or civil drones’, which would aim to cover the issues they currently face. The European Commission states that it aims to allow ‘European industry to become a global leader for this emerging technology’, to the frustration of their US-counterparts.

The European Commission proposes:

  • Strict EU wide rules on safety authorisations, developed by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
  • Tough controls on privacy and data protection.
  • Controls to protect civil drones from security threats.
  • Clear regulatory framework for liability and insurance.
  • Streamlining R&D work and supporting the industry, especially SMEs and start-ups.

The Commission has said that following an in-depth impact assessment of all issues carried out in 2014, it might issue a legislative proposal. This is part of the European Council’s objective of 2013 to ensure the progressive integration of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) from 2016.
Outside of Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Australia allow the private use of drones.

What can we expect to see in the future?

The regulation of drones is a complex matter. Regulators need to address the issues that arise with commercial and private use, such as: safety and security; the implications for privacy and data protection; insurance; shipping and logistics; the use for military and surveillance purposes; and cybersecurity, as they are vulnerable to hacking.

We will potentially see regulations created at the state level (in the case of the US), at the national level, at the supranational level, as in the case of the European Union, or at the international level (from the International Civil Aviation Organization). How this patchwork of potential regulations interacts, may end up being crucial to the development of the industry.

A well-constructed regulatory framework that supports the commercial interests of businesses will be critical to nations winning the race to regulate. Now the ball is in the regulators’ court. 

By Elena Magriñá, Policy Analyst at Inline Policy

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 (Photo by Lima Pix/CC BY)

Topics: Drone, European Union, UK politics, Technology, UK business, International politics

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