Drones are not only a popular (if expensive) toy. From farming and conservation to broadcasting and photography, the commercial applications of counter drone technology are seemingly endless. But the innovative technology that makes drones a useful asset is also the reason why they present serious threats and challenges.
Governments around the world have established a robust regulatory framework for the safe and ethical use of drones. But not every pilot is aware of their legal obligations. Current estimates suggest there are hundreds of thousands of unregistered drones in the US alone.
Airport authorities are understandably concerned about this trend. Not least, because of the year-on-year increase in near misses between drones and aircraft. Here are the four most important international drone laws and policies you need to know.
4 International Drone Laws – EU, US, and the UK
1. Flight Restriction Zones
It’s long been illegal to operate drones around airports. But after several high-profile incidents, including the one at Gatwick airport in 2018, officials have further tightened restrictions around Aerodrome Traffic Zones.
In the US, drone pilots are prohibited from flying within 5 miles (8km) of most airports – unless they have permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It's a similar story in the UK where the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) defines Aerodrome Traffic Zones as:
“A 2 or 2.5 nautical mile radius ‘cylinder’ around the aerodrome, extending 2000 ft above ground level, centred on the longest runway”.
Things are a little more complicated in the European Union. Thanks to legislation that came into effect on 31st December 2020, EU member states are free to define the parameters of their no-fly zones.
2. Maximum Altitude
Under current FAA and EU legislation, drones are restricted to a maximum altitude of 400 feet (120 metres) or 15m above artificial obstacles, such as power masts. This is dictated by the fact that most piloted aircraft activity takes place at 500 feet or higher. Drone operators must also have a clear, unobstructed view of their craft at all times – without the help of visual aids, such as binoculars.
Most modern drones and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) can easily exceed that limit. Some are capable of reaching altitudes of up to 13,000 feet. Manufacturers use built-in altimeters to address this issue. However, bear in mind that the GPS-based systems used in consumer drones have a limited altitude accuracy of <15m, while barometric altimeters only measure altitude relative to the take-off point.
One of the most basic requirements of drone ownership is registration. In the EU, pilots must register with the national aviation authority if their craft:
- Weighs more than 250g
- Has a camera (or any other sensory equipment capable of recording personal data)
Toy drones are the only exception to this rule.
Registration operates on a similar basis in the US. Pilots must register any UAV weighing between 0.55lbs and 55lbs with the FAA, at $5 per drone for three years. In addition, the FAA passed new legislation in December 2020 that requires all registered drones to be equipped with remote identification technology.
Pilots must be 16 or over to register in the US. However, EU member states can reduce the age requirement by up to four years for low-risk category drones or two for those that fall within the specific risk category.
UK drone operators must be 18 or over and register with the CAA if their craft weighs between 250g and 20kg. They’re then issued with a flyer ID which must be displayed clearly on their craft at all times. An annual subscription costs £9.
Anyone who wishes to register a drone in Europe must first complete one of three tests, each of which covers a different application or class of drone. This serves as proof of their competence and familiarity with drone safety. These three tests are:
- The Basic Operator Registration and Competency Test
- The A2 Certificate of Competence (A2 CofC)
- The General VLOS Certificate of Competence (GVC)
US pilots must pass the Aeronautical Knowledge Test (also known as the Part 107 test) before registering their drone. These are conducted at an FAA-approved testing centre. They must also undergo a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) security screening.
Drone users living in the UK must pass a free online theory test when registering their craft. The test consists of 20 multiple choice questions and expires after three years. Pilots may be exempt from the test under certain conditions. These include:
- UK model aircraft associations that are part of a CCA-reviewed competency scheme
- Military and security personnel
- Privately-built UAVs
- Anyone who holds a relevant achievement or certificate (the BMFA ‘A’ certificate, for instance)
Penalties for Breaches
Because drones pose such a serious threat to aircraft safety, penalties for breaching current EU and US legislation are severe. Endangering an aircraft carries a custodial sentence of up to five years under EU law – though fines are more common for minor offences.
Sanctions are equally stringent in the US. The FAA can fine pilots up to $32,666, per incident, under civil law for failing to produce valid proof of registration. Criminal sanctions for breaches of FAA regulations include fines of up to $250,000 and/or a three-year prison sentence.
To help tackle misuse of drones in the UK, aviation authorities were granted new powers in January 2020, as part of the Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill. Officers are now legally entitled to stop and search individuals around airports and other locations where drone use is restricted or prohibited altogether, such as prisons. They can land and inspect drones at their discretion, seize units (and all data stored within), and issue on-the-spot fines of up to £1,000.
Stay Aware of International Drone Laws
For airports and airline operators, understanding international, regional, national, and local drone laws is the first step to mitigating the threat. Being as informed as possible will help you enforce no-fly zones, and take the appropriate legal action if needed.
In terms of practical counter drone technology, most airports employ purpose-built drone detection radar. This allows you to monitor drone activity and spot potential issues before they escalate into serious threats, minimising the impact they could have on your operations.