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Something in the air!

PUBLISHED: 15:11 07 November 2016 | UPDATED: 15:11 07 November 2016

EXG NOV 16 CLA

EXG NOV 16 CLA

Archant

Martin Betts from the Country Land and Business Association takes a look at current issues and stories from our rural communities

There is something in the air! There is something in the air!

There is something in the air! It’s a buzz in the Essex countryside representing a real opportunity for rural businesses, but it could also potentially cause landowners significant problems.

Commercial and recreational drone use is soaring and while there is significant potential for this technology to benefit a wide variety of industries, not least in agriculture, there are problems to address too.

Members of the CLA, which represents landowners, farmers and rural businesses, have reported drones, particularly those fitted with surveillance equipment, flying over private property without permission – raising the question whether this amounts to a trespass.

More importantly, new figures from the UK Airprox Board, which assesses incidents in UK airspace, show there were 34 reported aircraft-drone near misses between January and June 2016, compared with 29 for all of 2015. Two of those near-misses involved a drone crossing the path of an aircraft coming into land at Stansted Airport, with one coming within 82 feet of a Boeing 747 at an altitude of 3,000ft.

Penalties currently in place for misuse of drones include up to five years imprisonment for endangering an aircraft. However, as yet, no one has been identified as the operator of the drone that almost caused a catastrophe.

With consumer spending on drones hitting all-time highs every Christmas and Amazon’s announcement in July that it will begin testing drones in UK suburbs and rural areas as part of a programme to deliver parcels directly to customers’ houses, it appears the sky is going to become an ever-more crowded place.

As a result, the CLA has said rules surrounding the use of drones must keep pace with the rapid growth in their use. The organisation believes current drone-use regulations do not go far enough to ensure people’s safety and privacy is protected, and that recreational pilots need to be identifiable. It is calling for the Government, drone industry leaders and related stakeholders to work together on a strategy that ensures all users understand their responsibilities.

‘The use of drones both commercially and for recreation is growing fast,’ comments CLA East Regional director Ben Underwood. ‘The potential for a wide range of industries is tremendously exciting, but we do need regulation to keep pace. We have had no reports of commercial operators causing problems, but it’s the non-commercial use of drones which is a real area of concern and where, perhaps, the law is yet to adapt. There needs to be reassurance that drones being flown over private property or land are being done so legally, professionally and safely. Safeguarding people’s wellbeing is extremely important, but we also need to address the potential for damage to property – we’ve already received several reports of drones crashing into agricultural buildings.

‘There is also a significant risk to privacy, in relation to both residential properties and privately owned land – especially from recreationally flown drones fitted with high-resolution cameras.’

Phil Cooper, who runs Stanstead Abbotts-based FlownDrones.co.uk, which uses drones to shoot aerial photography and video for various industries, including agriculture, says he believes there is a need for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to clamp down on recreational users.

‘There is a danger that all users of drones, both commercial and recreational, could be tarred with the same brush, but to offer drone services to companies you need the CAA permit to fly, and that is part of the Air Navigation Order (which refers to flight safety of unmanned craft and states drones must not be flown in airspace or above 400ft). We operate on behalf of landowners that have given permission to fly over their land whereas the vast majority of recreational users don’t look to obtain that,’ explains Phil, who has been operating model planes for 10 years and is a member of North Weald Model Flying Club.

‘Irresponsible use of drones near airports makes headlines and the CAA will have to clamp down on this more. However, it’ll be tough because the technology is cheaper, easily available and a lot of the modern drones can almost fly themselves. In America, the Federal Aviation Administration demands each drone has a licence number, even for recreational use, and each user has to pass a test. I believe applying this in the UK would lead to recreational users exercising restraint. They would know that if their drone is spotted in a near-miss situation, or in wreckage where there has been an accident, they would be facing a prison sentence.’

However, as it stands, recreational drone users are not registered and have to be trusted to adhere to the law. While drone technology and sales advance apace, farmers and landowners in Essex will be hoping that they will not be endangered or inconvenienced by the law being left in the slipstream.

Find Out More

The Civil Aviation Authority has produced a short clip for those that have purchased a drone – go to www.caa.co.uk and search for ‘dronecode’. CLA members seeking further advice regarding drones operating over their property should call the East Regional Office on 01638 590429

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