In the last two years, the number of drones being purchased for commercial and personal use has rapidly increased, causing a rise in 'near-misses' between drones and aircraft.
In the last 12 months the UK has had 62 incidents, up from a total of just six in 2014. Further afield, in the US, the FAA investigated a near miss with a jetliner and a drone at Newark Liberty Airport and, in September last year, Dubai International Airport had to close its airport owing to "unauthorised drone activity".
Events like these put people at risk and can cause runway closure or service disruption. For airports, these issues give rise to a risk of legal action, financial losses and reputational damage.
At the same time, if airports manage the risks of drones carefully there are a number of opportunities to capitalise on the growing drone application market, which PWC estimates to be worth £1.5bn, rising to over £100bn by 2020.
For example, airports could use drones to patrol their perimeter fences or to conduct more effective and quicker safety inspections of planes, thereby reducing turnaround times.
Drones also present an opportunity for airports to diversify and become 'drone hubs', accommodating fleets of the freight-carrying machines of the future.
Any approach towards reducing the risks threatened by drones should in our opinion be holistic, focusing not just on regulation, but also on educational and technological means of improving the technology.
Airports should actively engage with the law in this area so they can be proactive about the risks drones pose, the steps to be taken to protect their business and how to commercially exploit the opportunities.
Current drone law
Under current EU law, drones with a maximum take-off mass of less than 150kg remain the responsibility of each Member State.
In an effort to harmonise the EU position, in May 2017 the EU published a Notice of Proposed Amendment (NPA), which if adopted would bring all drones within the scope of a new drone-specific Regulation.
This should provide greater certainty and protection for both drone users and airports. The consultation period for the NPA is open until mid-September 2017.
Future drone law
Drones fell off the political agenda in the UK, with proposed new legislation being omitted from the Queen's Speech in June 2017. However, in July 2017 the Department for Transport (DfT) published its Response to its consultationon the Safe Use of Drones in the UK, which addressed a number of key issues as follows:
Increasing the accountability of drone users
All users of drones of 250g and above will have to register themselves and their drone. The government will work with users to consider how best to embed identification and tracking capability within this registration scheme, so that enforcement action against irresponsible drone use can be improved. There will also be mandatory competency testing for all leisure users (commercial users already have required standards to meet).
Changes to penalties and enforcement to reduce misuse of drones and risk of accidents
This will include tightening rules around where users can fly, increasing penalties and potentially banning the unauthorised use of drones near airports. The DfT also proposes reviewing the powers that law enforcement agencies have to tackle breaches and criminality involving drones.
Introducing 'No Drone Flying Zones'
They propose to do this by improving communication of no-drone-flying zones through widespread signage and an unmanned air traffic control system. On the same day as the government published its Response, it also launched Project Chatham, which will look to regularly publish data for UK areas that drones should not be flown in.
Any legislation will have to tread a careful path to ensure that it protects industries prone to disruption by drones and the public with appropriate regulation, whilst also ensuring that the growth in the drone industry, and the potential benefits to industries such as airports, are not stifled.
Next steps for airports
As one of the industries with the most to win and/or lose from increased drone use, airports should ensure that they are engaging with technology and the law, and in particular airports should:
Numerous industries will be demanding change to the drone industry that suits their own specific concerns – airports will need to ensure they make their voice heard.
Adrian Lifely is a Partner and head of airports infrastructure and services and James Salisbury is a Trainee Solicitor at international legal practice Osborne Clarke LLP.