UK Transport Department Proposes Drone Users Registry

 - July 24, 2017, 3:43 PM
Mid-air collisions with small drones pose a risk to helicopters in particular, a UK study has found. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Recreational drone users in the UK will be required to register their names and undergo competency testing under proposed legislation the UK Department for Transport announced on July 22. It comes on the heels of a study indicating that helicopters in particular are vulnerable to being damaged by midair collisions with drones.

The UK registration scheme would apply to owners of drones weighing 250 grams (8.8 ounces) and above—the same weight threshold the Federal Aviation Administration set for drone registration in the U.S. before a federal appellate ruled its drone registry unlawful in May, forcing the agency to offer refunds to drone enthusiasts and delete their names.

Under plans still being developed, UK drone users will be able to register online or through an application. They will have to prove they understand safety, security and privacy regulations by taking a “drone safety awareness” test. A spokesman for the UK transport department said the registration scheme will be introduced as formal legislation to Parliament and is subject to action by that body. At present, the date of implementation remains undetermined. “Over the next few months we will be exploring in detail the measures to be taken,” the spokesman said.

“Our measures prioritize protecting the public while maximizing the full potential of drones,” stated Lord Martin Callanan, Parliamentary under secretary of state for aviation. “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 announcement followed a regulatory consultation process during which public comment was sought, running from late December through mid-March. It coincided with the release of a study of midair collisions between drones and manned aircraft commissioned by the Department for Transport, the Military Aviation Authority and the British Airline Pilots’ Association.

Defense technology company QinetiQ and testing organization Natural Impacts conducted the study, basing it on laboratory testing and computer modeling. They found that a drone weighing 400 grams (14.1 ounces) with exposed metal motors could damage a helicopter’s windscreen, and that impact with a small drone could also damage a tail rotor. Birdstrike-certified windscreens had greater resistance than non-certified windscreens, but they could still be critically damaged at normal cruise speeds.

Researchers found that airliner windscreens are more resilient, but could be critically damaged by midair collisions with a quadcopter weighing around 2 kg (4.4 pounds) and with 3.5 kg (7.7 pound)-class fixed-wing drones with exposed metallic components at “high but realistic” speeds.

The construction of a drone can make a significant difference in the severity of a collision. “Where the toughest and densest drone components were covered with a plastic casing, or did not hit the windscreen first, the impact of the collisions was lessened,” the study states. “With regard to the comparison with the severity of a birdstrike, it was realized that drones can cause significantly more damage than a bird of equivalent mass at the same speed.”

Shenzhen, China-based drone manufacturer DJI in a statement said it welcomed the drone registration proposal.

“Drone technology offers enormous benefits to the UK, and the Department for Transport’s proposal appears to strike a sensible balance between protecting public safety and bringing those benefits to the UK’s businesses and the public at large,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI’s U.S.-based vice president of policy and legal affairs. “We are encouraged by the fair and thoughtful approach the government has taken to date. The key will be maintaining this balance in the next round of deliberation.”

In a separate development, Canada on July 15 released draft regulations applying to drones weighing from 250 grams to 25 kg (55 pounds) and operated within the pilot’s visual line of sight. The proposed regulatory framework succeeds an interim rule Transport Canada announced in March that places strict restrictions on recreational use of drones.

The draft regulations introduce risk-based requirements based on the weight of a drone, the operating environment and the complexity of the operation. They would also set requirements for licensing, insurance, training and manufacturing based on the type of drone. Comments are due to Transport Canada by October 13.

DJI said it is disappointed with the Canadian draft rules. Though some operating restrictions are eased from the interim order, the regulations make no distinction between recreational and commercial operations and limit safe and responsible drone use, the manufacturer said.

The rules “make it harder for Canadian innovators and entrepreneurs to develop new ways to use drones in business, education, agriculture and public safety, leaving Canada to fall behind in realizing the benefits of drones,” DJI declared.