Police to be given powers to combat illegal use of drones

Police will be given more powers and resources to crack down on illegal drone use in a bid to avoid a repeat of the chaos this caused at airports.

As part of the plans, a mobile “counter-drone” unit equipped with technology to track down and interfere with the devices will be set up to respond to incidents across the UK.

The move could also help tackle the use of drones to bring drugs, weapons, phones and other contraband into jails.

Drone sightings at Gatwick in December caused around 1,000 flights to be cancelled or diverted over 36 hours, affecting more than 140,000 passengers in the run-up to Christmas.

Gatwick
Counter drone equipment deployed on a rooftop at Gatwick airport (Gareth Fuller/PA)

A number of other airports have been forced to suspend flights for several hours due to drone activity this year, including Heathrow.

The ideas are part of a Government plan to “deter, detect and disrupt the misuse of drones”, the Home Office said.

The police powers will be set out in the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill, which was announced in the Queen’s Speech and is due to be presented to Parliament, while other pledges have been set out in a counter-drone strategy.

A document setting out the plan said: “Our aim will be to stop malicious and illegal drone use as early as possible, ideally before a drone is used in a crime.

“The Government will consider what further product standards or restrictions within the drone sector could reduce risks associated with the misuse of drones without disproportionately affecting legitimate users, setting new international standards.”

Work would be carried out with behavioural scientists, law enforcement, and “at-risk” sites to find the best ways of deterring people from using drones maliciously, the strategy said, adding: “We will encourage the public to report instances of drone misuse and equate wider vigilance campaigns with suspicious drone use, as much as other terrorist or criminal activity.

Heathrow drone disruption
Severe disruption was caused in the run-up to Christmas last year (Yui Mok/PA)

“By better publicising prosecutions for drone offences we will make it harder for people to claim ignorance when prosecuted.”

International design standards for manufacturers to fit drones with safety features will also be set.

The unmanned aircraft industry is expected to contribute an extra £42 billion to the UK economy by 2030, with more than 76,000 drones expected to be in use by this date, according to the Home Office.

But latest figures showed there were 168 police recorded drone incidents in England and Wales in 2018 and 165 drones were found in prisons in 2016 and 2017, according to the department.

And the UK Airprox Board said there were 125 near-misses between drones and aircraft reported in 2018, up by more than a third on the total of 93 during the previous year.

Drones close Gatwick airport
John Lewis announced it is stopping the sale of drones amid concerns they could cause disruption (John Stilwell/PA)

No-fly zones around airports were extended from 1km to 5km in March in an effort to prevent disruption.

From the end of November, anyone with a drone weighing more than 250g will need to register it with the Civil Aviation Authority and pass a competency test.

John Lewis has even stopped selling drones amid growing concerns over their misuse and the problems caused at airports.

Security minister Brandon Lewis said: “This Government is proud of the UK’s burgeoning drone industry and we will do all that we can to ensure that the UK firmly establishes itself as a world leader in this industry.

“But to ensure the drone industry can thrive in this country we must be able to crack down effectively on those who would use drones to cause harm or disruption.

“There is no silver bullet to help protect our infrastructure and our citizens from malicious or careless drone use.”

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