Government targets drones with additional police powers and new technology

Transport secretary Chris Grayling stands up to airborne menace

The government is to explore the use of various anti-drone technologies while granting the police new powers to compel users to ground the vehicles and produce, on demand, their registration documents.

The Department for Transport has this week published the government response to a public consultation on drones conducted last year.

As part of the response, the government has outlined plans to allow police officers “to land drones and require users to produce the proper documentation”. Minor offences – such as failure to comply with an officer’s instructions or being unable to produce the relevant documentation – will soon be subject to on-the-spot fines of up to £100. 

Law enforcement will also be granted the authority to search premises to seize rogue users’ drones and access the electronic data stored on them. 

In addition to these new police powers, the government also intends to explore the possibility of using technology to tackle the threat posed by the vehicles.

“The Home Office will also begin to test and evaluate the safe use of a range of counter-drone technology,” the government said. “This crucial technology will detect drones from flying around sensitive sites, including airports and prisons, and develop a range of options to respond to drones, helping to prevent a repeat of incidents such as that recently experienced at Gatwick.”

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Over the course of three days shortly before Christmas, about 1,000 flights due to land at or depart from Gatwick Airport were cancelled or diverted after drones were seen flying near the runway, in what is believed to have been a deliberate act of sabotage. Authorities are yet to charge anyone with an offence in relation to the incident. Sussex Police continue to investigate.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling said the disruption was “deliberate, irresponsible and calculated, as well as illegal”. In a statement to the House of Commons, he said that he wanted to see those responsible for the Gatwick incident given “the maximum possible custodial sentence”. He also pledged that the DfT, Home Office, Ministry of Defence, and Civil Aviation Authority will work closely with police and airport management to ensure that UK airports are “fully prepared to manage” any similar disturbances in the future.

“The Gatwick incident has reinforced the fact that it is crucial that our regulatory and enforcement regime keeps pace with rapid technological change,” Grayling said. “We have already taken some big steps towards building a regulatory system for this new sector. It is already an offence to endanger aircraft. Drones must not be flown near people or property and have to be kept within visual line of sight. Commercial users are able to operate drones outside of these rules, but only when granted CAA permission after meeting strict safety conditions.”

He added: “There is no question but that lessons have to be learned from what happened at Gatwick. Passengers have to be able to travel without fear of their trips being disrupted by malicious drone use. Airports must be prepared to deal with incidents of this type, and the police need the proper powers to deal with drone offences. We must also be ready to harness the opportunities and benefits that the safe use of drones can bring.”

Sam Trendall

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