Drone photojournalist arrest highlights urgent need to improve drone regulatory rules

The arrest this week of a Civil Aviation Authority authorised commercial drone user, photojournalist Eddie Mitchell by Surrey Police, highlights the ongoing weaknesses and vagaries that are present in the regulatory structure for drone users in the UK at present.

With concerns over the rapid growth in drone users, especially with drones expected to be a must have present at Christmas, I understand various police forces in the UK have issued guidance to their officers on the range of offences that could be committed from drone use that would enable police officers to carry out an arrest and potentially seek a prosecution, one of these offences being a breach of the peace. What the police authorities have failed to do so far however, is to appropriately train their officers on drone use and how they should handle situations where drones are being flown. The initial report of Mr Mitchell’s arrest by Surrey Police in the Guardian for potential breach of the peace highlighted that Mr Mitchell’s flying of the drone was close to Gatwick airport, suggesting his arrest was related in some way to endangering aircraft. This appears incorrect as Mr Mitchell was using his drone equipment close to a caravan site where there had been a fatal fire. The site is used by travellers and the breach of the peace alleged by the police seems more likely to relate to the possible reaction by those present at the caravan site to the drone flying overhead. From the photographs published of the arrest, it seems Surrey police made a rather ham fisted attempt at arresting Mr Mitchell whilst his drone was still in the air. Untrained in the flying of drones they appear to have snatched the control box resulting in the drone ultimately crashing to the ground, potentially of course risking injuries.

drone Picture by Darren Cool

Peter Lee in his blog Drones and the Law, suggests that the CAA may have to start issuing ID cards for those they have authorised to fly drones commercially to avoid potential misunderstandings. But clearly even where the police are aware that a person is a bona fide commercial drone operator and they wish that person to cease their flying they must know how to handle the situation appropriately, within designated laid down procedures.

On a wider note as a matter of some urgency non commercial drone users must be made aware of the rules by which they must abide by when flying drones. At the recent House of Lords Select Committee enquiry into drones there has been discussion about requiring manufacturers to place guidance material in the boxes containing the drone when they are sold. I would suggest that actually this will not be sufficient and a far wider publicity campaign will be needed.

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