Think before 'Droning on'......
With drones now selling for as little as £50, and both commercial and private use of drones increasing rapidly, sometimes for dubious purposes, is there any law regulating the use of drones or have the skies become the Wild West?
Many of the potential pitfalls of flying a drone seem to stem from people not realising that even the smallest drone is considered to be an ‘aircraft’ for the purposes of the law. It is not obvious that something as small as a drone is actually subject to the same sorts of regulations imposed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on other aircraft (including RAF bombers). Even fewer people are aware that non-compliance with the CAA regulations applicable to your aircraft is a criminal offence.
‘Drone Culture’ is less developed here in the UK and the cases where flying drones has led to civil and/or criminal proceedings are few and far between but there have already been a number of cases in the USA. As the popularity of drones continues to rocket, it is inevitable UK courts will shortly see cases brought by disgruntled landowners and neighbours claiming to have had their right to privacy and their property rights violated.
Aside from the CAA regulations and privacy laws, it seems from American case law that prospective ‘droners’ should watch out for the civil offences of trespass and nuisance in particular if they wish to fly their drones over their neighbour’s land without being sued.
Trespass is any unauthorised entry by a person upon another’s land and this partially extends to the airspace above that land. The amount of airspace ‘owned’ by the landowner is enough to enable ‘reasonable use and enjoyment’ of the land beneath that airspace. To avoid being sued for trespass or nuisance, droners should avoid flying their drones so low over neighbours’ land that it interferes with the use of the land. It is stating the obvious to say that falling out with your neighbour about ownership of airspace is unlikely to be an enjoyable or constructive exercise. Common sense needs to come to the fore.
Drones fitted with cameras are more tightly controlled by the CAA and it seems likely these drones will be more likely to constitute a nuisance as your neighbours can argue their privacy has been violated. A partial defence could be that any images taken above neighbouring land are of such a low resolution that there is no actionable interference with privacy.
If you plan on using a drone, it clearly makes sense to cast your eyes over the CAA guidance before flying, particularly if the drone is fitted with surveillance equipment. If you want to explore this further, the Air Navigation Order 2016 contains the relevant regulations. But whilst the regulations themselves are reasonably clear, it is fair to say that the use of drones involves liabilities that have yet to be fully tested by the Courts. There are going to be cases going through the Courts in due course but, for now, make sure that you are not a test case.
If you would like any legal advice in relation to a dispute that has arisen in relation to the flying of drones or if you are involved in a dispute concerning property rights, please contact the litigation department on 01242 574244.