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Understanding the Latest Drone User Testing and Safety Rules

Drone ownership has grown at a phenomenal rate in the last five years, thanks to better affordability and increased accessibility to high quality consumer drones. Companies like DJI are leading the way with high end consumer drones, and there are even more affordable models that sacrifice camera capabilities to come in at an entry level price point.

It’s not just general hobbyists and amateur photographers that have embraced drones. A number of businesses now use drones for surveying, creating aerial videos or photographs for promotional purposes, and drones are also used by professional photographers for covering weddings and other special events.

It’s not surprising that the government has taken note of the increased prevalence of drones, and there are now rules in place that require drones be registered, and operators must sit safety tests.

Details of the New Drone Rules in the United Kingdom

Not all drones will be covered by the latest regulations. Any drone under 250 grams can be operated without registration and without the requirement of user safety testing. This allows better flexibility for smaller RC devices that may be used by children and hobbyists. Anything above 250 grams will have to be registered, and operated by someone who has completed a safety testing program with an accredited training provider.

The government is optimistic that the new rules will allow for better use of drones in private, commercial, and government sanctioned operations. Lord Martin Callanan, who was Aviation Minister at the time when the new rules were drafted, said that the rules will “prioritise protecting the public while maximising the full potential of drones. Increasingly, drones are proving vital for inspecting transport infrastructure for repair or aiding police and fire services in search and rescue operations, even helping to save lives. But like all technology, drones too can be misused. By registering drones and introducing safety awareness tests to educate users, we can reduce the inadvertent breaching of airspace restrictions to protect the public.”

The new rules won’t change the fundamental rules that currently exist around drone operations. Current rules stipulate that:

  • Drone operators must remain within line of sight of their drones, and flying altitude should not exceed 400ft (120m).
  • Drones cannot be operated near airfields, airports, or in close proximity to commercial or private manned aircraft.
  • Drone’s cannot be operated within 150ft (50m) of property and people. Furthermore, drones cannot be operated within 500ft (150m) of crowds and built-up areas. (exceptions may exist for air shows, enthusiast events, commercial photography etc.)
  • Drones used in a way that is unsafe to aircraft can result in a maximum five-year prison sentence for the operator.

The new regulations will add to these existing rules. The safety training courses in the future will recap the existing drone rules while also ensuring that individuals have an understanding of the safety risks when operating a drone.

Government Wants More Geo Fencing and Better Tracking of Drones

Drone registration in itself will not have an immediate impact on operators, but it will help the government to identify retrieved drones, and may allow for real time tracking in the future.

Members of parliament want to have the ability to be able to identify drones from the ground, which would allow identification of unregistered drones. This ability would also allow authorities to identify drones that are being flown illegally. Drones have become problems especially around prisons, where they have been used in recent years to deliver contraband inside of closed areas. Drugs, cell phones, and other items can be delivered even with relatively low powered drones.

Increased geo fencing (technology used to block drones from entering airspace) could also be used to prevent drones from flying around prisons, built-up areas, and restricted airspace. Geo fencing is already utilized by companies like DJI, and is embedded in the drone firmware and operating software. However, tech savvy users can circumvent this technology. There are also other forms of fencing in development, such as virtual ‘shields’ that can be deployed to prevent drones from entering restricted airspace. These shields use radio frequency blocking, which is not reliant on any firmware or software on the drone or the controller.

Drone Producers Are Supportive of Incoming Rule Changes

The leading drone manufacturers have been supportive of the latest rules, and DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg has called the new rules “reasonable common sense.”

With better regulation of drones that is both fair and manageable, the UK government will be able to reduce illegal and unsafe drone practices, while promoting safer operation for those that use drones responsibly for entertainment, leisure, and commercial purposes.

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