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Drone Users: Registration

Volume 663: debated on Wednesday 10 July 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered a registration scheme for drone users.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. I recognise that it may appear to be something of a specialist subject, but I was rather swamped—or perhaps I should say swarmed—with a barrage of emails and letters from drone-operating constituents in May and June. That coincided with the Civil Aviation Authority’s consultation document on the charge proposal for a drone registration scheme. The consultation closed on 7 June and the Government’s response is awaited. It would be useful to hear from the Minister when a response is likely, given that the intention was that the registration scheme should open on 1 October, a date that is not far away.

I suspect that many other hon. Members will have been approached about the CAA proposals, because the activity in question is quite big. I have met a number of constituents who are involved, and I had not appreciated the magnitude of involvement in operating drones and model aircraft. There are an estimated 170,000 operators in the UK, including 600,000 model aircraft operated by 40,000 members of the four main UK model flying associations, the British Model Flying Association, the Large Model Association, the Scottish Aeromodellers Association and FPV UK—the association for radio-controlled model and drone flying. I fear we may get lost in acronyms as we continue. As I have said, it is a big activity, and the numbers involved compare with just 20,000 manned aircraft on the UK aircraft register. A lot more people fly model aircraft than real ones, and the figure is likely to grow.

The number of drones has risen exponentially because of the greater availability and easier affordability of multi-rotor drones over the past six years or so. You and I, Mr Robertson, can go into high street shops and buy one of those craft for under £100. Whether we would know how to operate the thing is another matter—which is what I want to come on to discuss.

The activity generally has a good safety record and largely responsible memberships affiliated to the various clubs; indeed, the most recent fatal accident involving a model aircraft occurred way back in 2003. The evidence given to the Science and Technology Committee on 26 June by Andy Sage of NATS, who categorised drone operators as “clueless, careless and criminal”, was unfair, inaccurate and insulting. I am pleased that he subsequently apologised for those comments. This is a growing and legitimate activity, and we need to be able to accommodate it. However, at the same time, I think we all recognise that it brings with it criminal or potentially damaging and intrusive opportunities, of which a small minority will take advantage, and are doing so.

The most high-profile issues around drone usage arose last year, in my neck of the woods at Gatwick airport, which was shut down for several days before Christmas because of sightings of drones that might have interfered with passenger aircraft. It remains something of a mystery as to exactly what drones were involved; nobody was prosecuted. More recently, we have heard from direct action groups such as Extinction Rebellion, which I have to say I get on well with in my constituency, about using drones to disrupt flights. I certainly condemn that, but it is an issue that we have to take into account.

There is a growing problem of drones flying drugs and other illicit goods into prisons, and just last week we heard that Wimbledon has had to team up with a technology company to prevent drones from flying overhead and disrupting play, which is becoming a common challenge for many other major sporting events. There is also potentially a nuisance problem of certain drones invading people’s privacy in residential areas, creating noise and flying dangerously close to crowds.

Drones are subject to existing laws, such the Air Navigation Order 2016, but there are few prosecutions. I think that most people acknowledge the need to bring in more robust rules to regulate the use of drones, but how should those rules work? They need to be fair and proportionate, which is why many of my constituents quite rightly have concerns, and I share those concerns.

I am grateful, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. On those concerns, does he agree with my constituent, a model airplane enthusiast who is concerned that, while the regulation around drone usage and the problems it can cause should be tackled, people who fly model airplanes should not be caught up in this and are now being asked to pay £16 a year? Perhaps we should look at an exemption for model airplane use.

I agree. If the hon. Lady bears with me, I will come on to exactly that point. However, it is £16.50, not £16, just to be pernickety.

To build on that point, people who fly radio-controlled model airplanes feel that the way this has been handled has ignored them, and that they were only brought in at the last moment. I hope the hon. Gentleman will talk about why they should be handled very delicately, because they have never been involved in any criminal activity but almost feel that they have been criminalised.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will come on to precisely that if he hangs around.

As I say, I think most people acknowledge that we need more robust rules. Back in 2018, the Government decided to mandate a drone registration and education scheme in the UK, to strengthen the accountability of drone users and their awareness of how to fly their drones safely and responsibly. Fortunately, it was agreed—after different thinking originally—that the scheme should register the operator, not every individual aircraft or drone, which could have made it a much more bureaucratic exercise. To that end, the Government propose that everyone in the UK operating drones or model aircraft between 250 grams and 20 kg in weight must register by the end of November this year and take an online safety test, or face a fine.

The scheme will be run by the Civil Aviation Authority which, as the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) said, proposes an annual £16.50 charge per operator, supposedly to cover the cost of running the scheme. That is based on an estimated 170,000 assumed registrations, which would raise something like £2.8 million —not a small sum. The CAA claims that it needs to cover the costs of the IT service hosting the system, IT security packages, a major national drone safety and registration requirement campaign, variable costs linked to user volumes and the ongoing upgrade of drone registration services, although there is not a lot of detail on those ongoing costs and why such a large amount of money is required.

I agree with the hon. Lady. One of my constituents’ main concerns is why the charge is £16.50, and why it is levied every year. Why not just an up-front registration fee, without the need to re-register? The United States scheme costs just $5 for three years, in Ireland it is €5 for three years, and France brought in a free scheme, so £16.50 seems disproportionate, given the experiences of comparable countries. Why is it is as much as £16.50? Why not a one-off fee? What are the ongoing costs? Will it go up from £16.50? These things have a curious habit of going up but never going down when schemes begin. Is it fair to charge a teenager £16.50 for using a drone when Amazon, which in years to come will probably operate fleets of hundreds of drones to deliver goodies to everybody, will also be charged £16.50? Those are my first questions to the Minister.

The hon. Gentleman is most kind. I congratulate him on introducing the debate. He, I and others in the Chamber recognise that drone use has led to contraband being taken into prisons; it comes up in Justice Questions nearly every month. Does he recognise the real need to register and approve all drone users to stop contraband going into prisons? It is important that we deal with criminality and those who use drones for criminal purposes.

I completely agree, which is why I said I think we all agree that we need more robust regulations and a registration scheme. I think most users do not dispute that but they do dispute the proportionality and cost. The scheme needs to be effective, because there is criminal activity in prisons—terrorism and other things, as I mentioned. How it will do anything to deter people who use drones to drop drugs and other illicit goods into prisons is not clear. A small minority misuse drone technology, and if we are going to operate a scheme it should not penalise the vast majority who operate legitimately but should be quite clear about how it will clamp down on criminals using drones for completely illegitimate activities.

What does registration actually offer to the operator, other than a confirmation of compliance? Membership of the British Model Flying Association, through the various recognised clubs, usually includes public liability insurance cover and proper training and oversight from qualified instructors, and clubs tend to police their own members because they want everybody to operate responsibly and within the law. Why is the CAA effectively trying to reinvent the wheel when the current membership scheme works well in the existing clubs? It could just oblige all operators to register through a club, rather than through the CAA-run scheme.

The scheme could also be operated by the police, who could choose to contract it out to local clubs, when clubs prepared to take that on are available. Where they are not available, the police could operate it themselves, or through somebody else. That is how they do driving awareness classes and similar schemes in various parts of the country. The model is already there.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has taken the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of considerable importance to a relatively small number of people. All Members have constituents who are highly reputable model aircraft operators who have carried out their hobby for years and years without any problems whatsoever. We now face a completely different animal, the drone, which he rightly says is used for commercial as well as nefarious purposes. There surely has to be some way of separating those two. My gut feeling, as I think is his, is that members of reputable clubs ought to have some kind of different treatment.

I have some sympathy with that and it is the thrust of what I am coming to. The scheme as it stands will put everybody in the same pot, treat everybody in the same way, when actually the activity is already policing itself, with existing members of model clubs, very well. How can we expand that expertise and build on what we already have, rather than trying to come up with something completely new? That is the thrust of my argument.

Under European Aviation Safety Agency rules in France, for example, there are powers to delegate registration and regulation to recognised local model flying clubs. We would likely want to go down the same route in a few years’ time, so why not start on that basis now? Surely we should be running a complementary scheme to that of other European countries. In the UK, the CAA already delegates powers to the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, the Light Aircraft Association and the British Gliding Association, among others, so there are already precedents.

The various flying associations had been working constructively with the CAA and the Department for Transport, but they now claim that they have been rather stonewalled, as they put it, by both those parties, particularly since the beginning of this year and post the Gatwick episode. That is unfortunate. They believe, as the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) said, that the model flying community is being unfairly vilified for the actions of a small handful of unlawful drone operators. It is easy to see why they believe that; I have a great deal of sympathy with that view.

Other concerns have been raised. The online test is a simple, multiple-choice static test. It is not really a competence test, whereas if it were carried out by clubs, they could ensure that it was a proper test. They could be there in person to see that the operators really did know what they were doing. There are many grey areas in the law about flying over private property or public land and about enforcement of the law about flying too close to crowds. Again, proper instruction and tips and recommendations from flying clubs seem to be a good way of ensuring that we have responsible operators.

Should there be differentiation between commercial operators and private hobby operators? As I have said, Amazon is likely to be operating loads of drones commercially in future. Surely it should be subject to a higher and more expensive level of regulation. I recently saw the first unmanned air taxi being trialled in Dubai. I am sure that use of such vehicles will become the norm before long. It looks a little scary at the moment, but anyway, that is the speed at which technology is advancing.

I am very glad that my hon. Friend has raised this matter. In 2017, I led a debate in this place on drones and airprox incidents with drones, which had risen from three in 2015 to about 70 in 2017. Can my hon. Friend confirm that those were nothing to do with model aircraft, but were all to do with drones? The safety record of model aircraft is completely different and therefore they should be put in a different category or, as he says, dealt with through the reputable clubs, of which my constituents are also members.

To an extent. The exact statistics are that out of 55 airprox incidents—near misses—in the six months to May 2019 in the consolidated drone, balloon and model category, drones accounted for 49, unknown objects—Martians or whatever else—for five, and balloons for one, so model aircraft were not anywhere near the level that drones were at. It is therefore clear why most model aircraft flyers, who do not class themselves as drone operators but will be caught up in the new system, feel particularly aggrieved.

There are concerns about STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—education, because model flying and drone flying can be the gateway to STEM skills, providing a bottom rung to aviation by which young people can be inspired to pursue technical careers. I have been round many schools, and in my constituency I have Shoreham airport, which is working with schools on some of the skills in relation to aircraft, model aircraft and so on. We want to encourage that.

There is some inconsistency in relation to age criteria for licences for various activities. In this country, people have to be 16 to get a motorcycle racing licence, only eight to get a level 1 powerboat licence, and 14 to be a solo glider. It is unclear how the 18 limit originally suggested in this case will work. Who will be responsible for a minor if damage is caused when they are operating a drone uninsured, for example?

There is quite a debate in the industry about the potential impact of a single drone colliding with a passenger aircraft—that is a different debate for another day—and the various options of interfering with radio signals for potential terrorist activity and so on.

There is the issue of geofencing, which means having a capability to receive and transmit a GPS signal to show where a drone is, so that it would appear on the radar of anyone seeking to detect illicit drone use. However, the mass technology is not available on a viable commercial basis for that just yet. The issue is whether the new scheme is proportionate, affordable and effective in supporting the legitimate model aircraft and drone operating community, while isolating and facilitating better policing against a small number of unlawful drone operators and those determined to use drones for various forms of criminal activity.

There still seems to be a divide between that view and the CAA and the Department. A letter—curiously, it was not signed, but was written by “The Drones Team” from the Department for Transport—sent in reply to one of my constituents, who made many of the points that I have made, said that

“the principle that the Government set out in our January consultation response still stands. Any alternative approach for model flyers must be achieved without imposing undue burden on the state and the taxpayer, whilst also being efficient and enforceable, without compromising the integrity of the policy. A blanket exemption from registration and competency tests or having the associations register their members into the registration system, as suggested in many of the consultation responses submitted by model fliers, will not meet these criteria.”

That is unfortunate because certainly the industry will say that it can meet those criteria and it is prepared to be flexible.

The chief executive of the Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, whom I met earlier this week, has said:

“We support registration, e-conspicuity and the requirement for airspace management…This will become increasingly important over the coming years as the use of drone technology increases and it is embedded into roles across multiple sectors. Drones will be acknowledged as delivering substantial benefits in the emergency services, environmental services and the commercial environment as well as providing a great recreational pastime enjoyed by many thousands of users.

The issues we have are not with the concept of Registration but the quality, cost and therefore value for money that the current registration proposal appears to deliver to government and to the users required to register.”

I agree with that. It does seem that the DFT and the CAA are trying to reinvent the wheel and failing to harness the huge experience and network capability of existing legitimate, respected and experienced model flying aircraft operators. It seems a no-brainer to me that they should be talking with them much more closely and using what is there already, rather than coming up with a completely new and, on the face of it, rather bureaucratic and disproportionate and costly scheme.

I have posed several questions to the Minister. I hope that we can come up with a proportionate and workable system, so that this legitimate activity can continue safely. I hope that, while respecting the rights and safety record of those legitimately involved, a new system can show how it will be easier to clamp down on just the sorts of criminals that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned and others who would use technology with malign intent. We should not let the illegitimate activities of the very few spoil what has become a widespread and enjoyable recreation and a technological advance that many people will be using for good in years to come.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this debate about the registration scheme for drone users. The registration scheme will be open to operators of all unmanned aircraft between a very light 250 grams and 20 kg. That will include drones and model aircraft.

Let me say this at the outset. Drones are expected to bring significant benefits—I accept that—to the United Kingdom’s economy in the coming years. Drones are good things. Like many good things, they can be used badly, and I will come to that. But PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that by 2030—just 10 or 11 years from now—the UK’s drone industry will be worth no less than £42 billion and will contribute 628,000 jobs. That is a significant advance in an important developing industry.

Our police, fire, and search and rescue services regularly use drones in emergency situations to help save lives. A few years ago, Northamptonshire police showed me a drone that it uses with its fire and rescue service to good effect. Drones are used to inspect and maintain important national infrastructure, reducing the risk of accidents, and driving productivity and efficiency. I acknowledge that the members of model aircraft clubs are law-abiding and upstanding individuals. I am grateful for their work with schools, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and their other engagements in public service.

The increase in availability of drones at all price ranges has meant greater enjoyment for people of all ages, and for a wider range of leisure users and hobbyists. The Government are committed to harnessing the positive impacts of drones, and to supporting the industry in growing. This Government support industry, business and our communities. However, the number of drones is increasing dramatically. As the technology evolves, drones are able to fly faster, for longer and at higher altitudes. This increases the risk of drones being flown too close to aircraft, buildings, including strategically important buildings, and people, whether accidentally or deliberately.

We know drones are used for criminal purposes, such as smuggling drugs into prisons. That matter is regularly raised with the Ministry of Justice. In extreme cases, they can be used for terrorism. Those risks to safety and security apply to all unmanned aircraft, including drones and model aircraft, so it is essential that the regulatory framework in the UK enables the responsible use of drones in a way that protects the safety and security of people, other aircraft and sensitive sites.

In 2016, the Government consulted on how to make the most of the emerging drone sector. We are not doing this unilaterally, but consulted on it some time ago. We want the UK to continue to maintain its world-class aviation safety record, which is admired around the world. We also sought views on how to address the security and privacy concerns associated with increasing drone use.

In 2018, the Government consulted further on next steps to ensure the safety, security and accountability of the drone industry, while harnessing the benefits that drones, used in a safe way, can bring to the UK economy. Ensuring that airspace is shared safely between manned and unmanned aircraft, and that security and people’s safety is protected, must be at the forefront of any regulatory regime. That is the case for our maritime and road regimes, and it must be the case for unmanned aircraft.

That is why the Government took forward a package of measures, following the 2016 consultation, at the heart of which was accountability on the part of the operator of the unmanned aircraft. Those include: a requirement for all operators of unmanned aircraft between 250 grams and 20 kg to register themselves with the Civil Aviation Authority; mandatory competency testing for remote pilots of unmanned aircraft between 250 grams and 20 kg; tighter rules on where unmanned aircraft can be flown, which include a flight restriction zone around airports; and further restrictions on flying small unmanned aircraft above 400 feet without permission from the CAA. Those measures were legislated for through an amendment to the Air Navigation Order in 2018.

The disruption caused at Gatwick and Heathrow airports by drone incursions in December 2018 highlighted the need for better protection around aerodromes. Flying drones near an airport is a serious criminal offence. Using drones deliberately to put people’s safety at risk carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Following the 2018 consultation, the Government legislated earlier this year to extend the flight restriction zone around aerodromes, to better protect, in particular, aircraft on approach and take-off.

In the limited time remaining, I want to focus on the requirements for unmanned aircraft operators to register with the CAA, and for remote pilots to undertake a competency test. The requirements for registration and competency testing will come into force on 30 November 2019. These requirements will make unmanned aircraft users within UK airspace more accountable for their activity.

The CAA is setting up an unmanned aircraft registration and education service, which is expected to go live in October 2019, ahead of the legal requirements coming into force. That will include a competency test and a registration scheme. The test aims to ensure that remote pilots understand how to fly their unmanned aircraft responsibly and are aware of the rules. It will cover subjects such as air safety, airspace restrictions, general knowledge about unmanned aircraft, limitations to human performance, and relevant privacy and security considerations.

The registration scheme will ensure that unmanned aircraft operators are easily identifiable, and that aircraft are traceable back to their operator in the event of an accident. I do not think that is an unreasonable requirement. We need to be able to trace operators where an offence has been committed, as we do with other modes of transport. The development of the registration scheme and competency test is well under way. The CAA is testing it with users throughout the process to make it as user-friendly as possible.

As a statutory body, the CAA is required to recover its cost from those it regulates, meaning that the unmanned aircraft operator registration and education system, which is required under statute, must not impose an undue burden on the state and the taxpayer. The CAA’s consultation on charging for the scheme, which ran from 26 April to 7 June 2019, committed to keeping the charge for registration as low as possible, while ensuring that the scheme funds itself from 1 October 2019. It would not be fair for the public to fund the scheme through the CAA. The CAA is analysing the responses, which will inform its final decision on the cost. It is important to highlight that, whatever the final cost, the charge will be per operator. This means that one operator may register several unmanned aircraft at no additional cost. Amazon and similar commercial operations will have additional, more stringent requirements and costs.

I want to emphasise that the Government recognise that the majority of unmanned aircraft users already fly responsibly and within the law. We are particularly aware of the strong safety culture fostered by the majority of model aircraft flyers and clubs, and the Government support their hobby. However, all unmanned aircraft have the potential to pose a safety and security threat, either deliberately or accidentally. There have been instances of model aircraft being flown illegally, for example within restricted areas around airports. The registration and education scheme must reflect the reality of the risk by including all users.

Will the Minister address the point made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about the cost comparison with other countries, and say why there is a cost each year?

Other countries have different schemes and regulations, which may operate more centrally. We have a system under the CAA, which is a statutory body and is regulated in such a way that it is under a duty to recover its reasonable costs. Many model aircraft and drones cost a substantial sum of money. The £16.50 cost is not unreasonable in those circumstances.

In summary, this Government are committed to maximising the benefits of emerging technologies, such as drones, to the UK’s economy and to individuals for industrial, commercial and leisure use, but we must do so in a way that protects people’s safety, security and privacy. The unmanned aircraft registration and education requirements are an essential element of our programme to do that.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered a registration scheme for drone users.

Sitting suspended.