Toughen up law on drones, urges Bath legal expert in light of Gatwick disruption

December 20, 2018

A Bath lawyer has warned that the UK’s drone law is not fit for purpose following the chaos caused at Gatwick Airport by rogue unmanned aircraft.

As flights started again at the beleagured airport after around 36 hours of disruption, the head of drone law at Bath-headquartered regional law firm Royds Withy King, Philip Banks-Welsh, called for changes to current legislation. 

Hundreds of flights were cancelled and the Christmas travel plans of more than 125,000 passengers disrupted after rogue drones were seen over the runway at Gatwick on Wednesday evening.

Flights into and out of the airport resumed today although passengers were warned to expect some disruption caused by the backlog.

Mr Banks-Welsh, pictured, a partner at Royds Withy King and a former RAF fighter controller, said more needed to be done to manage the risks to obvious targets such as airports, sports stadiums and other public venues.

“At the present time, it is far from clear whether the incident at Gatwick was a malicious act intended to cause physical damage or loss of life, but it was almost certainly intended to cause disruption and commercial harm,” he said. 

“This further highlights the fact that current regulation, which looks to punish offenders after the event, is wholly unsuitable to control such actions, and we need to act far more quickly to develop technologies that will counter malicious drone use, particularly near such vulnerable and sensitive locations.

“With such a fast-moving technology this will not be an easy task, but the cat is out of the bag now in terms of the availability of airborne drones, and the technology that surrounds their further development, and regulation, as well as counter drone technology, now has to move to the top of the list if we are to maintain confidence in the safety of our airports and air travel generally.”

He said it was “no great surprise” that the Gatwick disruption was caused by one or more airborne drones being flown within the airport airspace.

“An incident of this nature and magnitude was pretty much inevitable at some point,” he said. “Clearly the situation could have been much worse, and we have to be thankful that there was no harm caused to people or property, but the incident highlights the deficiencies in regulation and control of airborne drones and, in particular, their use near to controlled, or sensitive, airspace.

“Transport minister Baroness Sugg acknowledged that counter drone technology is nowhere near advanced enough to counter such an incident.

“She announced that there would be ongoing consultations with the police and security services in the new year with a view to improving such technology. Clearly this has to be a priority if we are to be in a position to prevent, or at least minimise the impact of such incidents in the future.”

Royds Withy King is one of the only UK law firms to have a team dedicated to drone law. Mr Banks-Welsh is one of a group of ‘key enablers’ who have been invited by the Department for Transport and BSI (British Standards Institution) to put forward strategy proposals on a number of key areas concerning the development of drone guidelines, protocols and standards.   

Royds Withy King employs around 520 people across its offices in Bath, London, Oxford and Swindon.



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