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What Laws Apply To The Drone Invasion?

Monday, 22 December 2014

Logistics businesses worldwide are engaged in intense competition but going the extra mile to win greater customer satisfaction can incur huge operational costs. This has resulted in experimentation in the innovative use of drones for commercial purposes with Amazon leading the charge.

In the UK, usage has mainly targeted London, Liverpool, Nottingham and Cambridge. The approach seeks to replicate similar developments elsewhere such as Australia (Google) and Germany (DHL). Significantly, commercial use of drones is effectively banned in the US as the regulatory agency fleshes out a legal regime for its take-off by September 2015.

Commercial use of drones in the UK

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles controlled from the ground or autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. Originally used for reconnaissance and offensive attacks in combat, they are now geared towards commerce but safety concerns have so far restrained their use. For the world’s largest online retailer Amazon, plans are afoot to deliver parcels by drone. Accordingly, it has planned flight tests in Cambridge. Meanwhile other companies such as Domino’s UK are also experimenting; last year it partnered with a drone company to deliver pizza to its customers. Presently, the regulator, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) authorises 359 operators using drones weighing under 20kg for commercial purposes.

The legal regime for UK drone use

The rules covering flying drones are governed by Articles 166-167 of the CAA’s 2009 regulations which are geared towards public safety. Permission must be obtained to fly small drones commercially or a camera-fitted drone near to people or properties not under their control.

The law permits test flights on open land but, among other restrictions, the law prohibits the flying of drones within 150 metres of a congested area. Amazon’s quest in this regard could be scuppered since current rules make its aims practically impossible. This is because, for drones to be used for deliveries, the operator must remain in the line of sight of the aircraft.

Amazon may thus be on a collision course with the CAA, given that the regulator has earlier this year successfully prosecuted two errant firms for misuse of drones.

Physical and legal risks

Despite the existence of laws to protect the public, drones pose a threat of serious injury or death. This view is echoed by Chris Wilkinson, director of Upper Cut Productions - a Nottingham-based duly-licensed company which uses drones to film. This is all the more alarming with the recent flight of drones over such densely populated areas as London, Liverpool and Nottingham.

Further, Amazon’s test run plans have encountered considerable opposition due to safety concerns, including the possibility of the drones being a target for yobs with airguns. Additionally, the observation by former British intelligence Chief Sir David Omand in recent research that the next twenty years faced significant “safety, security and privacy concerns” will not help the cause of using drones commercially. Privacy concerns may also pose a threat to the commercial use of drones.


The commercial application of drones is a recent development but with large investments by companies such as Amazon this might pave the way for the industry to blossom. Businesses looking to take advantage of the market in commercial drones should understand the legal issues associated with their use first. For specialist advice contact Peter Gourri today by email or telephone 0207 611 4848.

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