The British Drone Law Reaches Parliament

We’ve brought you a variety of stories over the years covering the interface between multirotor fliers and the law, and looked at the credibility gap between some official incident reports and the capabilities of real drones. In the news this week is a proposed new law in front of the British House of Commons that would bring in a licensing scheme for machines weighing over 250 g, as well as new powers to seize drones. We’ve previously told you about the consultation that led up to it, and its original announcement.

As a British voter with some interest in the matter, I decided to write to my Member of Parliament about it, and since my letter says what I would have written to cover the story anyway it stands below in lieu of the normal Hackaday article format. If you are a British multirotor flier this is an issue you need to be aware of, and if you have any concerns you should consider raising them with your MP as well.

To: Victoria Prentis MP, Member of Parliament for Banbury, Houses of Parliament, London

Hi Victoria,

I am writing to you today to express some concerns about the atmosphere surrounding the proposed bill to control the use of drones in the UK. I am a technical journalist whose remit sometimes covers drone stories in depth, and there are aspects of this particular one that I find rather troubling. I am not a drone flier beyond having bought a plastic toy drone to understand some of the technology, so I have no particular axe to grind.

As reported, this bill will bring in new police powers aimed at the illegal use of drones, for example when they are used for smuggling into prisons, and in establishing statutory no-fly zones around airports and the like. There will be new police powers to seize drones, and there will be a new drone test required to fly any machine weighing over 250 g. This comes against a backdrop of reported drone incidents in which there are said to have been near misses with aircraft. The Aviation Minister was interviewed about fostering innovation in the drone industry, and in a sense she’s right. The proposals will provide a boost to the drone industry, but it will be in Shenzhen rather than the UK as the Chinese manufacturers pour all their innovations into the 250 g class.

It goes without saying that the use of drones by criminals should be cracked down upon, and hard. It also goes without saying that the flying of drones close to aircraft should be illegal, and those who do it should be prosecuted. Lock them up, throw away the key, all the clichés. But it is with the case of proximity to aircraft that my concern lies, because based on my research into air proximity incident reports over the years I believe that there has been some extremely irresponsible work on the matter on the part of the authorities, the pilots trade union, and particularly on the part of the media.

To understand this, it’s first worth describing what a drone is, and what it is capable of. By “drone”, I am referring to a machine with several fixed-attitude vertical propellers mounted around its fuselage, that are under the control of a microcomputer that maintains the craft’s position by varying the power to each propeller. The motors are all electric, and all such machines run on battery power. Even the largest drones use batteries, not unlike the ones you will have in your laptop. Because they can’t glide like a fixed-wing aircraft can, they can only stay in the air by having all motors running continuously. This means that all battery powered drones have a finite time in the air dictated by the weight of the battery pack they can carry, and that time is measured in minutes rather than hours. Flying at any sort of speed decreases this time hugely, as does flying at altitude because as the air gets thinner the propellers have to do more work for the same thrust. Thus while it’s possible for some drones to break the 400 m altitude limit reported as being in the new bill, in many cases getting back down again after any time up there before the batteries are exhausted would present a significant challenge.

Reading air proximity incident reports and analysing the claims made for the craft sighted, it is extremely difficult to reconcile them with the appearance and performance of real drones as I have outlined in the previous paragraph. There are descriptions of drones flying at airliner altitudes and speeds, of drones seemingly capable of manoeuvres even the RAF in their jet fighters couldn’t perform. Even the low altitude sightings stretch credibility, for example the Gatwick sighting that is often reported would have required a drone with excessive battery life and the ability to evade surveillance at one of the most heavily policed sites in the country. The one common thread that ties all the UK incident reports together is that at no point has any tangible evidence of a real drone been produced, no wreckage, no photographs, and no video. You will know that airliners now have video cameras all round, as a typical seat-back display now allows passengers to watch the view outside the plane, yet there has been no video evidence produced of these incidents. Indeed, the only incident proven to have caused a collision, onto a plane approaching Heathrow, was later concluded to have involved a plastic bag.

Ever since the dawn of flight, pilots have from time to time seen unidentified objects. They have variously been attributed to our wartime foes, to the Soviets, to alien invaders, and now the explanation of choice seems to be drones. Just as there were never any foo fighters or aliens discovered, now we have no tangible evidence of any drones beyond the same pilot eyewitness reports we had when the aliens were in the frame. To take these stories as irrefutable proof of drone involvement shows a breathtaking level of irresponsibility by the CAA, and I am therefore concerned that this and the poorly-informed media reporting on the issue will cause a bad law to be enacted. I predict that I will be writing stories about heavy-handed police confiscating legally held and flown drones at will, and meanwhile the criminals will continue to do what they always have done, and take no notice of the law.

Responsible drone users need good and well-enforced laws in place just as the general public does, to stop criminals and dangerous idiots using drones. I am concerned that the poor handling of incident reports by the CAA and the misinformed reporting on the issue will have an undue influence on this one, and cause it to fall short of being a good law. Please can I therefore ask you to remember when it comes before you, that it is the criminals who should be in your sights rather than the responsible users.

If you would like to know more about drones, are interested in seeing one in action, or indeed are interested in having a go yourself, it would be very easy to introduce you to responsible professional fliers who could satisfy your curiosity.


Jenny List


I know what you are thinking, that there is no point in doing this as they will inevitably take no notice. And there is an element of truth in that, because you can have no doubt that this law is going to be enacted. But there are two reasons to still do it, first of all to present a reasonable and balanced case as to why the evidents from the pilots should not entirely be trusted, and secondly to inflate my MP’s postbag on the issue. Surprisingly MPs are not deluged with mail on issues like this one, and it will not take many letters to get them thinking about it.

Just one thing though, if you do write a letter to your MP, don’t cut-and-paste mine. They’re wise to that trick.

Palace of Westminster image: Diliff [CC BY-SA 2.5].

52 thoughts on “The British Drone Law Reaches Parliament

  1. It often surprises me that the politicians are passing laws for things that seem, at least to me, to be well covered.
    Can’t fly in controlled airspace? Is it not already against the law to endanger other peoples lives?
    Camera’s capturing inappropriate personal pictures? Are there not already “Peeping Tom” laws?
    Mount a gun to a drone? Do we not already have laws that prohibit harming people and property with a firearm?

  2. Well written letter, but what do you think the regulations ought to be be? No test / cert required at any weight? A larger weight? No height limitation? Higher height limitation? Just curious.

    By the way I noticed a metric/imperial mistake in your letter if you haven’t sent it yet. The height limit being proposed is 400 ft not 400 m.

    1. Oops! Missed that. Cue huge metric/imperial comment thread.

      I don’t think many new regs are required, existing CAA regs are good enough. It’s just extremely bad reporting of incidents in which drone involvement is very questionable that I have issues with.

  3. Just because current drones have heavy batteries etc, doesn’t mean that future ones will. Laws have to last a lot longer than a year or so, so setting out things like the 400m altitude ignorant of current technology is eminently sensible.

  4. Sorry to be pedantic, but this sentence

    “I am concerned that the poor handling of incident reports by the CAA and the misinformed reporting on the issue will have an undue influence on this one, and cause it to fall short of being a good law.”

    should have been the second one in the first paragraph. If they have to read through to the end to get the point, human nature says there won’t be much impact.

  5. This is a fantastic letter, and I would have been very happy if such a letter-writing campaign had taken hold here in the States. My own neighbor, who is neither an aviator nor a drone enthusiast, frequently spouts the sort of nonsense on which it seems the proposed legislation will rest, and such a coherent rebuttal is a welcome read.
    Well done.

    1. Petitions have no impact on the political process. A petition with thousands of signatures carries no more weight than a single letter to an MP. The only exception is an petition to force an debate in the house of commons.

  6. All this anti drone stuff started when one was flown over a nuclear power station in France. That got their attention and all the negative press started as they can’t have the people watching them. On the BBC they aired a comment from a top police guy saying that pedo’s will be using them to look into children’s bedrooms.

    In my day pervs used binoculars, or just their eyes.

    All governments need to control their assets (the people) and make sure they maximise the monitory return invested in them for the elite that own each of the countries. Letting us have drones allows us too much freedom. You wouldn’t want cattle to realise which barn is the one with the slaughter house out the back. We are just a commodity that needs to be maximised for the greatest return.

    Well in the next two years the Fiat currencies will fail and we’ll be the ones staving. Time to start prepping people, a storm is coming!

    1. I’ve been to a nuclear power plant. The reactor just looked like a hill. It was in a meters-thick concrete case with dirt and grass over that. One wall, with a door stuck out the side of the “hill”. It didn’t look like much. The control building from the outside could have been any other industrial or office building. The only interesting thing I could imagine to be seen from a drone’s perspective were the cooling towers. These were massive concrete structures with open tops, water flowing down the insides of the walls and a shallow pool on the floor. You could walk in a short distance without getting wet as the flooring around the entrance was higher with a gradual slope down to the water.

      i can’t for the life of me think of anything a drone could harm nor any secrets one could learn with a drone camera. I’m sure that I learned far more as a kid on a field trip than any spy with a drone could have hoped for.

      1. The vulnerable point is the cooling system. Suppose for example you fly a convoy of drones designed to drop small timed explosives into the cooling loop, designed to disrupt the filters and then the pumps.

        It’s a bit far fetched, I know, but a more plausible scenario is a simple recon mission intended to map the points of entry so you know what to target with real weapons.

        1. Nuclear power stations use heat-exchangers and 2 cooling loops, one directly to the reactor (using something like liquid sodium, I dunno all the details), and a secondary one using water. If anything fails, automatic systems have lots of options, including dropping the moderator rods and stopping the nuclear reaction.

          The biggest dangers in nuclear reactors are the people operating them. The workers at Chernobyl had to disable several independent safety systems at once to run the “test” that caused the blowout. Of course the manuals said not to, in big enormous red Cyrillic letters (probably).

          1. perhaps forcing the powerplant to shut down is exactly the purpose. Remember the 2006 European blackout that started from North Germany and spread through France to Spain and Italy because there was a sudden loss of capacity in the grid.

  7. “It goes without saying that the use of drones by criminals should be cracked down upon, and hard.”

    No Jenny, no it doesn’t. Now, I don’t live in your country so I have no real stake in your laws however my country loves to make the same mistake and I wish it would end. Knowing this is unlikely because politicians love this kind of crap I wish that at least the voting public would realize the mistake and stop supporting it.

    This mistake is that this is just another “… with a …” law. Why do we need specific laws for when a criminal misuses a specific tool? Is it not illegal to endanger people’s lives? Why is that not enough? Here’s a much better law; “Do something stupid that endangers people’s lives and you get severely punished. Do it with intent (as opposed to simple poor judgement) and the punishment is much harsher. Demonstrate a repeated pattern of such behavior and you don’t get your freedom back until you are too old to be a threat ever again.”

    Why does this matter? It matters because endangering or hurting people is wrong even before doing it a certain way is common enough to get it’s own law. It’s also important because every offense has a certain level of punishment that it deserves. “… with a …” laws are a way to tack on extra jail time or extra fine dollars beyond what the the lawmakers forbidding the real offense (in this case endangering an airplane) deemed appropriate. If they are not already harsh enough then the penalties for violating the basic law should be increased. Extras should not be tacked on based on what tools were used. There is nothing less moral about flying a drone at a plane then blinding it’s pilots with a laser pointer, throwing rocks at the runway or any other anti-plane mischief that I can’t even imagine.

    To think of it another way… was the first person to shine a laser pointer at an airplane not in violation of any laws? Should they not have been punished? If I wanted to take down an airplane (I do not) should I be held less accountable if I find a new, novel way to do it that no one has foreseen the need to write a “… with a …” law about yet? Of course not!

    What these kinds of laws are is a tool for lawmakers to look like they are being productive. It’s a way for prosecutors to rack up bigger convictions on their resume’s. They have nothing to do with keeping people safe or justice.

    Oh.. and I do not mean by this that there shouldn’t be laws against flying near airports or anything else like that. We can’t trust every individuals best judgement on such matters. Those laws should be written more to “keep honest people honest”, not for cracking down. Fly too close to a restricted area… get a fine. Keep it up and you are banned from operating any drones.

    If you want to crack down on criminals then make harsh laws against their criminal activities. It doesn’t matter if they use a drone, laser pointer or something else. Lock them up for killing, hurting, endangering, stealing! If you don’t want contraband getting into jails then lock up anyone caught supplying it. Why does it matter if they used a drone, trebuchet, baked a cake or shoved it up a bodily orifice? The real punishments should be handed out for what a person did wrong, not the tools they used to do it.

    1. Did you read the rest of the letter? Jenny isn’t saying there should be any more laws, she’s saying that the existing laws should be used to ‘crack down’ on the people breaking them.

    2. I suppose the point of X with a Y laws, is that terms like “endangering” can be very subjective, and reducing subjectivity in the business of the stuff people do to each other is what law endeavours to do.

      So if you can specify laws as “Doing X with a Y to Z in a W manner”, then there’s a lot less arguing. Bearing in mind that deciding how many angels can dance on a pin in a courtroom is a popular and well-paid career in Western society.

      I think the “cracking down on the REAL criminals” rhetoric is just bullshit that people think they have to feed to MPs, or the public, in order to be taken seriously. AKA “fuck those guys, under the bus they go, now let’s talk about MY hobby”.

      Which is bullshit. There’s already enough “law” to put people suspected of certain things behind bars without having to tell them why, or justify it to a court, or have any sort of plan on when you might let them out. British people are basically hostages to the government. While you’re probably not going to be thrown in a hole forever for something you’ve no idea about, it happens to some people.

      If you really want your MP to give a shit, you could try sending them some money.

  8. Well worded. Especially this part:

    “I am therefore concerned that this and the poorly-informed media reporting on the issue will cause a bad law to be enacted. I predict that I will be writing stories about heavy-handed police confiscating legally held and flown drones at will, and meanwhile the criminals will continue to do what they always have done, and take no notice of the law.

    Responsible drone users need good and well-enforced laws in place just as the general public does, to stop criminals and dangerous idiots using drones. I am concerned that the poor handling of incident reports by the CAA and the misinformed reporting on the issue will have an undue influence on this one, and cause it to fall short of being a good law. Please can I therefore ask you to remember when it comes before you, that it is the criminals who should be in your sights rather than the responsible users.”

    I think I’ll use this to write my US rep — but I’ll replace all instances of “drone” with “firearm.”

  9. But that’s what lawmakers do. Make laws. When they run out of good laws to make, then they must invariably turn to the other sort in order to maintain their stock and trade. For what good is a lawmaker who cannot or does not make laws? In fact, a lawmaker who refuses to make laws should rightfully be concerned about keeping his or her job. If you or I were hired on to make widgets and we refused to make widgets, then our employer would undoubtedly be nonplussed and we would shortly thereafter lose our jobs in all likelihood.

    Indeed, the problem seems to stem from a fundamental imbalance in the number of lawmakers versus the number of lawbreakers. Clearly we need more of the latter and less of the former. At least until we reach the point that the number of laws broken reaches a tipping point such that we would need to engage the lawmakers again.

    Or perhaps there is an alternative solution. Instead of compounding the issue by constantly making new laws, perhaps we could instead create a new position for lawfixers who could go about simply fixing the laws which are broken rather than wasting valuable time and resources making new ones.

    Of course then there is the problem of what to do with the innumerable lawmakers who would undoubtedly be idled or even made redundant under the new scheme. And to that I do have some measure of concern regarding the sudden glut of obsolete lawmakers on the market at far below their former going rate. Fortunately for those among us who have always secretly desired to purchase their own lawmaker, they could likely snatch them up at rock-bottom prices. So it could end up being win-win all around.

    1. “Of course then there is the problem of what to do with the innumerable lawmakers”

      Well! I guess there is a situation where recycling is actually better than reuse. Soylent Green anyone?

  10. Want a credible accident report? Here you go:

    Keep in mind the article/author of that piece is wrong in one regard. Dutch law is that the glider was allowed to be there (special exemption for gliders in the winter months to soar along the dunes) and has right of way over pretty much all other air traffic. See and avoid applies, for both, but the drone should have avoided the accident, because a glider has little option to get out of the way.

  11. My god, Ms. List. What were you ever thinking? You offered some well-written and logical arguments to a Politician?!?

    To wit, please reference the recent shenanigans of the U.S. FCC, and the wonderful people in Brussels that just presented the EU with binding directives having no harmonized standards.

    Of course, my guilt is even greater, having oft written letters to my congressional cretin, sorry, my congressman.

    1. Instead of people constantly writing their congressman (better said: their shredder) they should write their parents and grandparents and tell them to sop voting in the most foul, corrupt, and unsuited.

      1. But this is a long letter to a representative, in my neck of the woods when dealing with officials some decorum is expected I think.
        And I’m not sure it’ll be appreciated if it is not there, and officials are often rather.. spiteful/vengeful.

  12. Well written letter, [Jenny]. If only politicians had common sense.
    As for new laws, why the heck should people be required to be tested or licensed to operate a toy? Makes no sense to me, especially considering the fact that there are already laws in place that can be used to prosecute the idiots and criminals.

    1. There’s already laws regulating the British use of carrier bags, and that was before a terrorist carrier bag tried to take down a plane.

      The media are constantly scaring the public and demanding “something must be done”, so there’s always an appetite for new laws coming from there. Then bone-idle police constantly push for ways to make their job easier, so that ideally criminals will deliver themselves to prison ready-cuffed and the police won’t have to get off their arse except to make more tea. In fact if you could get the criminals to do us a cuppa while they’re already up, that’d be lovely thanks.

  13. Rational response has no place in Security Theater. I could bark at a rock with perhaps more effect than emailing one of the political class here in the US. (Admittedly, my comparison of rocks to Congress or NJ politicians may be insulting to rocks)

  14. Airplane and helicopter modeling has already been a legal hobby with satisfactory regulations in all the countries since about 100 years. A quadcopter is ONLY a helicopter model, nothing more. A drone is something completely different, but not identical to a quadcopter. So what is exactly that we want to regulate?

  15. “Responsible drone users need good and well-enforced laws in place just as the general public does, to stop criminals and dangerous idiots using drones.”

    Wow, how many things are wrong with that ONE sentence which panders to the nanny-statist’s so-called “mind”? First off, “responsible drone users” don’t need more laws to deter them from flying where and how they shouldn’t. Second, BY DEFINITION, criminals ignore “laws”. Third, “dangerous idiots” are exactly that and will remain exactly that with or without laws.

    The -ONLY- deterrents are actually catching violators and then prosecuting them using ALREADY EXISTING LAWS like reckless endangerment OR electronically hijacking and capturing or crashing their expensive hardware. More LAWS will not do that and are just stupid, worthless, feel good, “show the ignorant general public that we’re doing something” eye candy which only affect the flyers you don’t need to worry about.

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