Future drone regulation: Self-Repairing Cities provides evidence to Parliament in new POST note

Jan 24 2020

Self-Repairing Cities partner, Dr Stephen Prior at Southampton University, has provided evidence for a new Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) note on civilian drones to inform MPs in upcoming debates on the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill recently introduced to Parliament by the new Government.

The new POST note on Misuse of Civilian Drones provides politicians with a summary of the key issues surrounding drone technology, its potential applications and threats from misuse.

Drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles, UAV, as they are also known – have a variety of civilian, as opposed to military, uses. This includes filming, environmental monitoring, agriculture, infrastructure inspection, emergency responses, as well as the much talked about potential for future delivery services. However, travel disruption due to drone sightings at Gatwick Airport in December 2018 highlighted the need to balance these legitimate uses with safety and avoiding rogue drone attacks.

“One problem we have is that we can’t currently distinguish between a good drone and a bad drone” notes Stephen Prior, “and even if we could, we don’t have the tools to be able to deal with a bad drone in a civilian context – you can’t just shoot it out of the air as you might in a military situation”. The proposed Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill would give the police greater powers to request evidence from drone users, and to issue a fixed penalty notice for minor drone offences. However, much more work is also needed to prove defeat mechanisms for drone attacks are safe and viable, and to resolve the legislation to allow these options to be used in the future.

Dr Prior also notes that an increase in civilian drone use may lead to problems with noise pollution, as seen recently with a Google drone-delivery service in Canberra being found to break local noise standards. The noise from drone rotor blades can be quite loud and also gives a high pitch sound that people may find intrusive. Improving drone design to reduce this issue is something that Dr Prior and his colleagues at Southampton University are actively pursuing, but he believes that setting limits on noise levels permitted for drones would help drive innovation in this area more widely. Self-Repairing Cities has also been investigating the impacts of noise pollution on urban biodiversity, conducting fieldwork over the summer of 2019. If drones are to become more common in the future, we need to understand the potential consequences for our environment as well as for citizens.

Informing the debate on legislation and regulation for robotics and autonomous systems is an essential part of Self-Repairing Cities’ work. To achieve our ambition of zero streetworks by 2050, we need to have both proven technological solutions and also the regulatory environment that allows these to be deployed. Dr Prior is leading the work on regulation for Self-Repairing Cities. In addition to providing evidence for the POST note, he also submit a response to the House of Commons Committee for Science and Technology’s ‘Commercial and recreational drone use in the UK’ inquiry in 2019, and was subsequently invited to give verbal evidence to the inquiry (closed session). He has since been invited to join an academic round table meeting with the Joint Security and Resilience Centre (Home Office) to discuss future threats from drones and mitigation measures.

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