Drone laws: the legal challenges of creating a drone corridor

As part of our work at Harwell, we’re building a drone corridor with the help of the European Space Agency. What is a drone corridor, though, and what are the laws and restrictions involved in creating one? In this post, we’re going to dig into some of the legal and safety issues of commercial drone operation.

To put together this information, we spoke to David Owens, our chief drone pilot, who’s been flying unmanned aircraft for three decades. Thank you for offering your advice, David!

What is a commercial drone corridor?

A commercial drone corridor is a flight path that’s been designated for the safe and legal operation of drones. It’s not visible, but it can be pictured as a corridor in the air. The corridor has a ceiling, sides and a floor: it needs to be a certain level above the ground, and there are limits on how high and how far sideways the drones can go.

There are some aspects to drone operation that can’t be predicted. For example, you can’t guarantee that birds won’t fly into your drone corridor. But creating a space specifically for commercial drone operation, avoiding structures, crowded areas and other air traffic, means the drones will have as few risks as possible to be mitigated against.

Drones and more specifically multicopters have limited battery life, so ensuring they have a clear flight path can make a real difference to how far they can fly. A few seconds here and there are valuable to a drone with a 30-minute flight time. Because of this, drone corridors help to extend the range of drones.

Of course, drone corridors also benefit other air traffic. If drones travel through a designated corridor, rather than moving freely, they’re unlikely to disrupt anyone else.

Do you need a licence to operate drones?

If you’re a hobbyist, you must have two IDs in place before flying most drones or model aircraft (weighing between 250g and 25kg) outdoors in the UK; you must pass a theory test to get a flyer ID, and the person who owns that drone or model aircraft must register for an operator ID too. Most people get both a flyer ID and an operator ID at the same time.

If you hope to use drones for commercial purposes, you previously needed a Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO) from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which regulates unmanned aircraft in the UK. From 31 December 2020, the PfCO has been replaced by a new qualification called the General Visual Line of Sight Certificate, or GVC.

To get the GVC, you’ll need to pass a short training course, an exam and a practical flight test. You’ll also need to prepare an operations manual that explains how you’re planning to manage your commercial operation and the safety measures you’re taking.

If all of this is approved, you’ll get a ‘permission’ from the CAA that lets you remotely operate small unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes. You’ll also need a valid insurance certificate when you’re operating a commercial drone.

You’ll need an additional Operational Safety Case (OSC) permission from the CAA if you’re planning to remotely pilot drones beyond your visual line of sight.

What is visual line of sight?

It’s a critical rule of drone operation that you need to be able to see the drone you’re flying. In other words, you need to keep the drone within your visual line of sight (VLOS). Even if you can still see it, you can’t fly the drone more than 500 metres from you, or more than 400 feet (120 metres) above the ground. (By convention, pilots use metres for distance and feet for height, so that they can’t be confused easily.)

Safety is taken very seriously in drone operation, and operating within VLOS is a simple way to reduce the risk of harm. If you can see the drone, you can also see anything the drone might collide with, and you can take quick action if there’s danger.

If you can show you’ve considered and managed the risks, you may be able to get permission from the CAA to fly beyond VLOS (BVLOS). Even with permission, you can only do this within a defined drone corridor, which is part of the reason drone corridors are so useful for commercial drone operation or research. Drone corridors legally have to be designed to reduce any risk of collision; we’ll go into more detail on this below.

The planned Darwin Drone Lab corridor at Harwell is about 900 metres long, so, if the drone operator stands at one end, the drone will hit the VLOS limit of 500 metres before it reaches the other end of the corridor. By providing evidence of our safe and legal operations, including the systems in place to minimise risks, we hope to demonstrate to the CAA that we deserve permission to fly BVLOS within 6 to 12 months of VLOS operation.

At the moment, it’s still possible to fly drones the full length of the corridor by having a remote pilot in the middle of the corridor with observers stationed at both ends, providing additional safety information to the pilot. This means the drone can fly uninterrupted from 500 metres in one direction to 500 metres in the other without compromising safety or breaking any laws.

What are the other laws of operating drones or creating a drone corridor?

Even once you have your PfCO/GVC, there are limits on how much your drone can carry, how fast it can fly and where it’s allowed to travel. If you fly over someone else’s land, for example, you need the permission of the landlord, and a drone can’t pass over buildings if it has cameras that could be used to spy through the windows.

The law says that you can’t fly a commercial drone within 50 metres of people, vehicles, vessels, buildings or other structures that aren’t under your control. This means that drone corridors won’t necessarily run in a straight line. Flying in a straight line is the most efficient way to cover a large distance, but it might bring your drone into areas that are off-limits, so planning is key to safe operation.

Drones have to stay at least 150 metres away from large crowds of 150 people or more, and a drone corridor can’t pass over parks or other places where people are likely to gather. It’s possible for drones to cross a footpath, but these regulations are put in place to ensure that drones don’t pass over ‘uninvolved people’, so the drone operator should make sure the footpath is clear before allowing the drone to cross it. Darwin’s drone corridor at Harwell passes mainly over open fields and trees.

Whenever you’re flying a drone, whether you’re a hobbyist or a commercial drone pilot, you need to make sure you’re operating legally and you’re operating safely. Most of the drone laws in place exist to make sure drones can coexist safely with people going about their daily lives. On the occasions when accidents do occur, or when drones pass too close to other aircraft (an air proximity or ‘airprox’ event), these incidents are reported, examined and learnt from in order to make the skies even safer.

UK drone law is an extensive and complicated subject, but this overview should help to give you an idea of it! We also have an article where we talk more about the practical applications of drones.

Darwin Innovation Group is a UK-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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