Chris Gee 28 January 2020

Will local authorities become airspace planners?

Our recent research with over 350 local authorities confirmed that councils do not have appropriate policies in place for drones and where there is a policy in place, it is not consistent with CAA regulations. We did not find a single policy that was accurate, up to date or enforceable.

Drones are here to stay, and the number of drones and unmanned aircraft is forecast to grow rapidly for both recreational use and commercial operations. Local authorities have a significant role to play in promoting the safe use of drones and creating an environment that supports the economic growth of the sector. I would also argue that local authorities could potentially have a very interesting role in the governance of lower level airspace.

Airspace is a national asset that needs to be shared in the most effective and efficient way to meet the overall needs of the UK. The biggest challenge to the future of unmanned aviation is public perception. The battleground here will be about airspace governance – the polices and rules that need to be put in place such that the benefits of unmanned aviation are seen to outweigh the perceived risks and nuisance.

The CAA is the regulator for the UK airspace structure and is the only organisation that can authorise changes to the structure of airspace. This works well for traditional aviation and there is an airspace change process that enables airports and our national air traffic control provider to request changes to the airspace structure. This change process is well defined and involves public consultation with local communities. It works effectively for governing higher-level airspace and airspace around airports.

However, lower level airspace that will be occupied by delivery drones and urban air mobility services is a bit like the wild west. As long as the remote pilot complies with the CAA regulations, then unmanned aircraft can fly wherever they like.

There is a bigger picture that needs to be addressed around the governance of lower level airspace. Who decides that it is acceptable for unmanned aircraft to fly over the local parish graveyard? Who determines that 60 flights an hour at night over my house is acceptable when the flight could equally fly over a parallel route? PwC’s “Building Trust in Drones” research revealed that only 31% of the UK public feel positive towards drone technology. The biggest concern was the improper use of drones and 70% of respondents wanted routes to be registered with the CAA.

The CAA will not have the capacity nor the local knowledge to deal with this micro-managed governance of lower level airspace. I believe there will need to be a framework in place for the CAA to delegate governance of lower level airspace to a local body that can engage with the public and address their concerns. Local authorities would be well positioned to play that role.

The future of unmanned aviation is evolving rapidly and local authorities should ensure that they have a lead officer responsible for implementing and maintaining appropriate policy. The policy should initially be focused on drones and include:

National context - up to date with the latest legislation and regulation as changes are announced
Local context - relevant local airspace restrictions and permissions required to fly in these areas
Council owned land - restrictions and opportunities for recreational flying from council owned property and land
Commercial use of drones - facilitating the growth and economic benefits of commercial drone operations
Exceptions - management of exceptions such as emergency services and flying clubs
Suspicious drone activity - Reporting suspicious activity or drone usage that presents a threat to the public
Council strategy – how the local authority intends to realise benefits from drone technology

Drone legislation is complex with regular changes such as the mandatory drone registration scheme introduced at the end of 2019 and there will be widespread changes with the introduction of European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulations in June 2020. A local authority may find it more cost effective to subscribe to a policy service rather than develop and maintain one in-house.

Chris Gee is MD of Agilio. Email chris.gee@agilio.co.uk for more information.

Read our previous articles on this subject:

Making drones work in local government

Drones in local government – getting it right

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