The Guardian view on drones: effective regulation needed

The mocking drones that have shut down Gatwick airport have shown up the shocking weakness of the British state. The political scientist David Runciman has described the contemporary state as simultaneously weaker and stronger than it was 100 years ago: it hopes to control much more than it used to, but partly as a consequence of these ambitions it lacks the power to fulfil all of them. This is perhaps a more profound lesson about sovereignty than some other contemporary discussions. The British state believes it has, or ought to have, sovereignty over its own airspace. Yet what appears to be a handful of troublemakers has been able to shut down the second largest airport in the country, defying the police and even the army, and causing hundreds of millions of pounds in damage to services and untold frustration and distress to hundreds of thousands of travellers. The model for the exercise of British air power is no longer the Battle of Britain.

It is already obvious that this could have had catastrophic consequences had it been a straightforward terrorist attack, which would have flown a drone into an engine of a fully loaded airliner. This would be the equivalent of a deliberate bird strike, and quite likely to cause a horrendous crash if the pilot did not have the skills and reflexes of Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who managed to land in the Hudson river in 2009 when his airliner struck a flock of geese shortly after taking off from New York. In the war against Islamic State, both sides made frequent use of drones both for reconnaissance and for delivering explosives. Now it turns out that a completely unarmed drone – without, so far as we know, even a camera on it – can be a fairly devastating weapon too.

Economic harm such as has befallen the UK this week is not the only injury that drone flyers can inflict on the people around them. Equipped with cameras, they can be astonishingly intrusive destroyers of privacy. Laden with drugs, they are widely used to breach the security of prison walls. There are, of course, many legitimate and valuable uses for drone technologies, but it is very difficult to argue that the pleasure of flying one should outweigh the potential damage to society of their uncontrolled use. Some people get great pleasure from recreational shooting, yet we control the use of guns very tightly because the risks to society are rightly thought to outweigh the benefits to individual gun owners, no matter how responsible some may be.

Drone operators who fly within one kilometre of an airfield can face jail time – but that depends on catching them in the first place. It is easy to sketch out a regulatory regime that would ensure that large drones would only be used by respectable commercial operators, who were licensed and insured, and who would never fly their machines at a dangerous height or close to sensitive spaces. Such rules are already in place in countries including Germany and Australia. The trouble is that they are not in place in Britain, too. Last year the Department for Transport announced a suite of regulations that would have imposed responsibility on the owners of all but the smallest, toy-type drones. These would require owners to register and sit an exam to prove that they understand the potential dangers of their hobby. But these sensible changes have not made it into law: the government has been preoccupied with other matters.

In the light of the incident at Gatwick, it would be more sensible to go further: to make legally binding the restrictions on where drones may fly and how high. The difficulty remains that all codes, laws and regulations must be enforced. At the moment they seem as little observed as speed limits are. In the absence of reliable technological ways to bring down rogue drones – or even, apparently, to track down their controllers – it is not just one airport but a whole country that the drones are mocking.

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