Will mandatory drone registration be enough to make our skies safer?

by David Harrison – Safety Director, NATS

The Government recently published its response to the consultation it ran on the safe use of drones in the UK. The headline announcement is the plan to introduce mandatory registration for drones over 250 grams in weight, as well as mandatory competency testing to support it.

While there are still questions about how this will be implemented, the measures are definitely a step in the right direction. Registration as a means to ensure operators are familiar with how to fly safely in the UK’s airspace is welcome and will build on the work we’ve already done with the CAA to promote safe flying through the launch of the Dronesafe.uk website and the Drone Assist app, which already has more than 25,000 registered users. Although it’s not mandatory, NATS has already begun work on a voluntary safety course that we will be launching later in the summer.

Despite a small minority of people who will flout the rules regardless, most operators want to fly safely. The challenge is that many drone operators are not aware of how the UK’s skies are managed and the risks associated with flying a drone in certain areas. A registration scheme to ensure operators have this knowledge before they fly can only be a positive and will hopefully help avoid incidents like those reported at Gatwick earlier this month.

It’s also right that the Government acknowledges, as it does in its full response, that this is just the start of a longer programme of work. Whilst the Government has ruled out mandatory electronic identification in the short term, this remains an essential component of any air traffic management system that incorporates drones.

There’s a strong argument to be made for embedding electronic identification and tracking capability in the registration process in due course. This would enable a service provider to know where and for what purpose a drone was being flown, which in turn would make it easier to offer a form of dynamic airspace service, where operators could be offered access to certain areas of airspace based on their level of competency, the drone they are operating and the purpose and duration of their flight in a way that could build on today’s Non-Standard Flight Planning process which NATS operates.

Other aspects such as defining drone-no-fly zones around airports and areas of critical infrastructure are important and will provide the foundation on which consistent and accurate geo-fencing can be based. We’ll be supporting the Government pilot project (Project Chatham) looking into this.

We know the Government is interested in running some trials around using apps to notify pre-flights. Our free Drone Assist app offers this functionality already and the latest version makes this even easier so we’ll be speaking to the Government to see how we might be able to support their initiative.

The important thing now is for work to continue apace; the UK can be at the forefront of this global industry but it’s important that the proposals advocated are implemented safely and swiftly.

The safety of UK airspace will always be our number one priority but we also want to advance aviation in the UK. We have a lot of experience in safely managing UK airspace and want to apply that expertise to ensure that, in the future, the UK has a safe, strong and successful drone industry that can co-exist alongside today’s manned aviation industry.