Would the registration and identification of drone operators in the UK result in their safer operation? BILL READ reports on a recent RAeS conference which considered the issue from the viewpoint of drone users, regulators and law enforcers. 

This year, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) required all drone users to be put onto a government register. There are now calls for a similar system to be set up in the UK. A conference organised by the RAeS UAS Group on 28 April brought together a wide variety of speakers representing drone users, regulators and law enforcers to discuss whether a UK drone registration scheme would help to reduce incidents of irresponsible use and increase public safety or were there other ways in which the problem could be tackled?

Drone explosion

Drone sales in the past three years have skyrocketed (DRONELIFE.com)

In recent years, the sales of small off-the-shelf drones has skyrocketed - particularly of camera-carrying quadcopters. Total numbers are hard to estimate but total international sales from drone manufacturers DJI and Parrot rose from 380,000 in 2013 to 680,000 in 2014 to 1.2m in 2015. These numbers are expected to continue to rise in the years to come.

The UK has also seen an increase in drone sales – many of which have been bought for private or recreational use by people who have never had any previous experience of operating aerial systems, nor any awareness of the rules they must follow to ensure operation.

Drone incidents

The number of reported drone incidents has also risen. (NATS)

As the number of drones increases, so does the risk of accidents. There have been an increasing number of incidents involving the unsafe or anti-social use of drones by irresponsible operators, including a number of alleged near misses with commercial aircraft. “As drone sightings increase, it is starting to affect airport operations,” commented Philip Binks, Solutions Architect at NATS. “Last year, Manchester had to close a runway after a drone was reported in one of the departure lanes. Drone incursions cost money. If an airport was to close for 30min, it would cost the industry £1m.”

However, Binks also admitted that the total number of reported drone near misses may not be accurate. “We have to take the pilot’s report at face value,” he admitted. “In the first three months of this year, drones were reported at heights from under 400ft to as high as 12,500ft. There was even one reported sighting from 35,000ft which makes the reports less credible, as pilots may be reporting anything they see as a drone.”

As the total number of drones and incidents involving them increases, professional UAV operators who do follow the rules are becoming concerned that the whole industry could be adversely affected by bad publicity from a drone accident or even result in their commercial operations being stifled by hastily introduced legislation. “Bad publicity is bad for the whole industry,” commented keystone speaker Paul Cremin, Head of UK Aviation Operational Safety and Emerging Technologies, Department of Transport (DfT). “Regarding the recent incident involving a British Airways aircraft – the question of whether or not it really did collide with a drone is irrelevant, what matters is that the media ran the story and it went viral. The potential impact that may have on the drone industry is probably the quickest way to stifle growth and opportunity.”

Drone awareness


Despite their many usual applications, the public currently has a negative perception of drones.

A key issue in the debate is the issue of drone awareness. The public perception of drones is largely derived from media reports, either of military drone operations or examples of their irresponsible use. In an attempt to improve public awareness and perception of drones, the DfT initiated a public dialogue to explore the public’s understanding of drones and their current uses, together with their expectations, hopes, concerns and fears about future usage. It included a series of three public dialogue workshops for around 120 people held between December and January in Manchester, Stirling, Aberystwyth, Salisbury and Newry. Each group included around 30 selected members of the general public supported by a number of stakeholders representing different aspects of drone use, including drone users, companies and government representatives.

“To start with people didn’t know much about drones, their information generally came from the media,” explained Peter Duggan, Transitional and Emerging Technologies, DfT. “A lot of it was quite negative – although not as negative as I thought it might be. Some understood different applications and what the benefits were. Most participants’ spontaneous associations related to high street toys or military drones. These came with negative connotations and concerns but participants acknowledged this was based on limited knowledge and wanted to know more.”

However, as the workshops continued, participants became more positive. By the time the awareness sessions had finished, participants wanted to see more balanced media coverage of drone use and applications which also stressed their commercial and emergency services applications - including disaster relief, police and medical use, surveying and conservation, photography and sport.

In addition to becoming excited by the potential of drones, participants also became more aware about the risks involved with their accidental and malicious use. While participants were, in general, trusting of military and commercial operators, they voiced concerns about public users who were often seen as ‘untrained hobbyists’. Comments included: “The only ones that still worry me are the hobbyists and leisure users, they frighten me the most…” and “I’m not saying it’s malicious but, if you go and buy one in a shop, does it actually say ‘this is what it can do and if you go out of it you’re liable’?”

Rules - what rules?


Regulations regarding drone operations in the UK are the responsibility of the CAA. (CAA)

A second issue is the regulations governing the safe operation of drones. In the UK, current Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations prohibit the use of drones over 20kg except in special areas. However, UAVs under that weight can be flown in the operator’s line of sight but must not to be flown higher than 400ft, operated closer than 150m to any congested area or within 50m of any vessel, vehicle or structure that is not in the control of the person in charge of the aircraft. Drone operators must also maintain direct visual contact with the aircraft to monitor its flight and must not operate drones at distances exceeding 500m.

However, not everyone follows the rules. Many operators of small commercially available drones are unaware – or choose to ignore the rules governing their safe use – a particular offender being users who fly photographic quadcopters above crowds of people or too close to buildings or sensitive infrastructure.

Uncertain enforcement

Andrew Hamilton, Head of Serious Collisions Investigation Unit, Devon and Cornwall Police, explained how that the majority of drone-related incidents that he has had to deal with so far were due to ignorance rather than criminal intent. “In all the cases so far, we’ve managed to identify the owners,” he said. “Some drone owners aren’t very clever and left selfies on the drone SD card.”

However, as the number of incidents increases, enforcing the regulations could get more difficult. “If you see a drone in the air, how do you know who’s flying it?” asks Andre Clot, Centre Director, EuroUSC.

Another problem is that the rules are still unclear in certain areas. “The police need to know who to contact in the event of an incident,” explained Peter Duggan. “Is it the responsibility of the person who the drone is registered to or the person who was operating it? Because there have been very few cases of prosecutions so far, there are also problems establishing what the penalties should be.” “Regulations enforcers need some teeth,” added Simon Phippard, Partner in Bird & Bird. “It would be beneficial to have a legal test case relating to drones, such as an airline suing a drone operator, which would bring some clarity to this area.”

Is registration the answer?

Would the introduction of US-style drone registration work in the UK? (Arnold Reinhold)

Would the introduction of registration help to increase drone safety? The opinion of both operators and regulators was divided:

“Registration is all very well but it will only identify the owner not the operator,” said Andrew Hamilton. “Criminals won’t register their drones.”

“Would registration reduce the number of incidents by the wilfully stupid or the wilfully criminal?” asked Manny Williamson, Development Officer, British Model Flying Association (BMFA). “Probably not.”

“Money spent on registration would be better spent on education,” declared Philip Binks from NATS.

Martin Robinson, CEO of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) was more positive. “Registration can lead to good compliance,” he stated. “At the heart of the demand for registration is the responsibility of the operator. If you can be traced, you are going to be careful how you use it and who you allow to use it.” Robinson also considered that there was no need for full registration for leisure use of drones and that self-regulation through an association would be a good idea. However, while most delegates agreed that registration would encourage responsibility, it was also admitted that whoever the drone was registered to was not necessarily the same person as who was flying it. There were also data protection concerns over who might have access to information on individuals who were on the register.

Craig Lippett of ARPAS-UK reminded delegates that any scheme that encouraged private operators to fly more responsibly would benefit all drone uses, both amateur and professional alike.

The UK DoT has also not yet made up its mind on whether registration is a good or a bad thing. “Registration is a starting point but not a panacea,” remarked Peter Duggan. “There is no easy answer,” added Paul Cremin. “The jury is still out. We have to consider what is the purpose of registration - is it the answer or a knee-jerk reaction? A registration scheme gives you some degree of traceability but the only people that will register are the ones who are aware of the regulations already.”

How would registration work?

Speakers also considered how a registration scheme might work. One suggestion is that it could be operated in a similar way to that already in force with UK owners of vehicles and firearms which could include age restrictions on who could be allow to fly drones. Registration could also be done at the point of sale together with mandatory insurance. “We also have to ask questions such as who will manage it and how it will be financed,” said Paul Cremin.



Drone users in Ireland must both register and identify their drones. (IAA)

In addition to setting up a register of drone users, there have also been suggestions that all drones should carry some form of external identification as to their operators. Ralph James, Director Security Regulation, Irish Aviation Authority, explained how Ireland had implemented drone registration at the beginning of this year which included a unique reference number decal for each drone.

Another suggestion is that drones should be fitted with transponders so that they can be detected. “Currently, we can’t see a drone on our radar, since our equipment is designed to filter out anything smaller than 1m2,” explained Philip Binks from NATS. “If we can’t see them then we don’t know where they are. This causes a massive problem because we don’t know if current airspace users are safe. We had a talk with the CAA and we decided that the best way we could deal with the problem was to treat drone sightings the same way as we deal with air turbulence. So, if a pilot reports a drone, we would then broadcast its location to other airspace users for the next 20min.”

Martin Robinson made the comparison between drones and cyclists who do not use lights at night: “When you can’t see them, it puts both them at risk and me at risk.” However, he also argued for a proportionate risk-based approach. “It’s a good thing for air traffic control being able to see GA aircraft. However, it also has to be affordable, even to the smallest operator.” Drone tagging, or electronic conspicuity as some speakers referred to it, would also have the advantage of enabling the police or other authorities to quickly identify the owners of drones found on the ground.

Once again, the question arose over who should be responsible for the electronic tagging of drones, some arguing that it should be the responsibility of the UAS manufacturers. However, for this to work, then a recognised and approved type of transponder would need to be fitted by every manufacturer. There is also the risk that an illegal operator would avoid being identified simply by using a drone which either had no identification or which belonged to someone else.

Simon Phippard was of the opinion that registration and identification are not’ either-or’ options and need to be used together. “If a drone is involved in an incident, then we need to know both the identity of the drone and its operator,” he argued.

Other solutions

While not everyone agreed that registration and/or tagging were the best solutions, then are any other solutions to making drones safer? DoT drone awareness meeting participants were of the opinion that larger drones should include such mandatory safety features as blade covers and control features which limited height and distance, including a ‘return home’ function. Other suggestions were that drones should be fitted with automatic ‘detect and avoid’ system, as well as being proof against malicious hacking where control is taken over by another user. Another idea was that drones could be fitted with automatic ‘geofencing’ systems which prevent them from straying into prohibited areas. However, as seems to be the case with every suggestion put forward regarding drones, there was also a counter-argument that some commercial drone operators might be required to fly within a restricted area (such as a secure site or near communications or power infrastructure) to actually complete a job. Approaches which involve combining identification, geofencing and automatic conflict management techniques to provide a specific low altitude traffic management system for drones were also discussed and may be important in the future

Safer through insurance

There is also the issue of insurance against the risk of drones damaging property or causing injury to people. It is compulsory for professional drone users to have insurance which is also carried by model aircraft enthusiasts. “All our BMFA members are insured for up to £25m,” explained Manny Williamson.

However, there is currently no insurance requirement for recreational drone fliers. Even if there was a requirement for compulsory insurance, the insurance industry may not yet be ready to provide it. “Insurers have not yet had any involvement with the hobby/recreational sector and there is not yet enough data to base the risk of claims on,” said Philip Heath, Director, Coverdrone. Heath went on to explain how the general level of safety of drone operation would be important in assessing premiums. “Insurers are a business like any other,” he said. “They have to assess premiums paid in versus claims paid out. If drones have a bad safety record, insurers may reduce their cover, add extra requirements for operator competency or equipment safety or even exit the market already if it is unprofitable. On the other hand, if drones have a good safety record, then premiums will come down and insurers may remove requirements and extend cover.

If drone insurance was mandatory, then it could be used as a tool to improve safety, suggested Heath. “To qualify for insurance, operators could be required to register their details together with the identity of their drone. Premiums would also be lower for operators who fly safe designs and follow the rules. We could also add for professional indemnity cover in case of any incidences relating to data protection and privacy.”

Education and training

NATS suggest that every drone sold should include information about the regulations. (NATS)

One area that all delegates were agreed on was the need for public education and training in drone use. This would involve, firstly, making the general public aware of the existence of drone regulations through publicity campaigns, social media, schools and public notices Secondly, all new UAS users could be trained in their use through CAA leaflets in the box, on websites and even though flying club lessons. The degree of training could vary depending on the size of the drone but delegates agreed that it should be affordable. “If we do include instructions at the point of sale, the regulators must bear in mind that the majority of new RPAS users are non-aviators and won’t understand aviation terms,” cautioned Philip Binks from NATS. “You have to keep the language simple.”

Ongoing evolution


Can legislators keep up with the evolution of drones? (CAA)

An additional problem faced by the regulators is to predict what will happen next. “Innovation is moving so fast that it is difficult for both regulation and policy people to keep up with it,” remarked Paul Cremin. “It is difficult to anticipate how this industry will evolve. Ten to 15 years ago, we imagined that the skies would be full of large size UAVs behaving in the same way as aircraft. The regulations that we currently have were based on that concept and concentrate on integrating large systems into the airspace. But the market hasn’t evolved that way and we now to respond to a situation we didn’t expect.”

Cremin also warned that, whether not the UK decides to adopt drone registration and identification, they may be forced to anyway through international regulations. “The European Airline Safety Association (EASA) has highlighted ‘identification’ as being a key issue,” he explained. “However, is not clear as to whether they mean UAV transponders or owner’s identification. If EASA decides to change the rules, then member states may be encouraged to set up national registration schemes. In addition, the UK government is working to enable beyond visual line of sight drone operation by 2019 which will require electronic conspicuity.”


31 May 2016