Drone use is rising and rapid advances in technology are improving the speed and range of these Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). This has the potential to unlock incredible commercial value in areas such as search and rescue or delivering goods and medical supplies. But with this evolution comes increasing risks to national security, such as the disruption caused to Gatwick Airport in 2018, and growing complexity in managing the use of drones.
The UK Government has issued a Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System (C-UAS) Strategy to empower police to act on unlawful drone use in its Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill. And there are various initiatives to enable greater use, including commercial licensing through the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). But such initiatives need greater financial support to drive prosperous commercial growth and ensure the safety of our skies.
So, how can the UK Government best respond to manage the evolving UAS threat and enable the commercial use of drones? The answer is in establishing a ‘Safer Skies’ strategic vision that aligns policy and regulation across government and industry and encompasses both UAS and C-UAS.
1. Create a single mission for all departments to work towards
Numerous government departments hold a stake in the future of UAS strategy, all concurrently developing legislation and policy around the use of UAS and C-UAS. Each organisation has its own goals, and those trying to enable UAS for commercial gain can often be working independently to those looking to defend against its nefarious use. Yet C-UAS can build on UAS infrastructure as they have similar technical and logistical challenges.
So, the Government must continue to develop central co-ordination. It must also establish a clear mission that all departments can work towards, such as ‘to develop the policies and technologies that will allow the UK to safely use UAS to grow.’
2. Build new partnerships to co-develop the technology
If UAS are to reach their full potential, the skies need appropriate policing, much like the roads. The UK Government could do this efficiently by rolling out and administrating national Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) infrastructure, which can provide preapproved flight corridors for commercial UAS operation. This would create a safe, monitorable and prosperous environment, with specified access and exit points like motorway junctions.
The Government must partner with industry to define and develop this UTM infrastructure. Air Navigation Service Providers, for example, could use their experience in managing large volumes of manned commercial traffic. This collaborative development of a UTM system would also spur the development of UAS and C-UAS by providing a foundation for how mass unmanned air traffic will work.
3. Constrain legal commercial UAS use to approved airspace
Commercial UAS manufacturers must ensure their flight control software constrains flight to preapproved UTM flight paths to maintain a monitorable environment for commercial drones. Hobbyists and small-scale operators, such as videographers, would continue to fly in line with existing regulations and CAA approvals, with off-the-shelf UAS manufacturers using software to maintain non-commercial flight corridors.
Creating such regulated environments for commercial UAS operation would make it possible to strategically install C-UAS systems to monitor flight corridors and their immediate area. Negligent or nefarious drone operation would be quickly distinguishable from legitimate use, letting C-UAS systems automatically alert authorities and respond appropriately.
The UK can use drones to grow without falling to new threats. By aligning all government departments to a single mission, developing a common UTM infrastructure with industry and creating the aerial equivalent of the road network, the UK Government can enable economic growth from drones while managing emerging threats.