OFCOM – New commercial drone services cleared for new year take-off

New and innovative commercial services delivered by drones will be able to take to the skies from January 2023, as Ofcom today confirms it will start issuing spectrum licenses for essential drone safety and communications equipment.

Advances in technology have led to drones increasing in size and complexity and flying over longer distances – in some cases travelling beyond the sight of the operator.

This has created a range of commercial opportunities across several industries, from delivery of medical supplies to remote areas, to use in search and rescue operations.  But long-distance, higher-altitude drones still need to be controlled and send back data or video to the operator.

Working closely with the Government and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Ofcom has developed a new approach for authorising the radio equipment needed to communicate with these drones (PDF, 703.7 KB). Today, we are confirming that companies will be able to apply for a new type of spectrum licence from 20 January 2023, allowing companies to use mobile and satellite networks to enable their drone fleets to operate a wider range of services and over longer distances.[1]

Flight path set for new drone licensing regime

As the regulator of the radio spectrum, Ofcom currently allows drones to use airwaves designated for model aircraft or for Wi-Fi without the need for a licence.[2] This arrangement is unsuitable for the services offered by the latest generation of drones, because the radio power limitations of licence-exempt drones cannot provide the necessary range.

The launch of the new licensing regime will allow licensed operators – which could be a company or individual – to use certain on-board communications technologies for the first time which enable a drone to be operated beyond visual line of sight. These include mobile and satellite terminals for control and transmission of data and safety equipment to enable commercial drones to avoid collisions and integrate safely into the UK’s airspace.[3]

Once granted, a new licence will last indefinitely, subject to an annual fee of £75. The licence covers all drones operated in the UK and territorial waters, but not international flights.

Under the terms of their new licence, drone operators must secure specific written agreement from a mobile or satellite network operator before using its network. Licensees are also prohibited from using the 2.6 GHz band (2500-2690 MHz) in order to protect air traffic control radars.

Safety first

Ofcom’s new licences also authorise the use of safety equipment, including radars, beacons and altimeters, to enable drones to operate safely in UK airspace.

Along with the Government, the CAA is currently developing a longer-term framework for how drones can be integrated into UK airspace management. As part of this, it is likely that the CAA will introduce further requirements relating to what safety radio equipment drone operators must use.

We will continue to work closely with the CAA and Government to ensure the regulations remain aligned.

Commercial drones are set to be a real game-changer, bringing vast benefits such as helping to meet healthcare needs in remote communities, and supporting search and rescue missions.

Our new spectrum licence will enable pioneers of innovative, emerging drone technology to harness its full potential and offer a broader range of services to people and businesses across the UK.

David Willis, Spectrum Group Director at Ofcom

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