The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry is enjoying a boom

Members of the public should be able to check out suspicious drones on their smartphones, says an influential House of Lords committee, which has urged the Government to set up an online database of all civilian drone flights.

The EU subcommittee, which is scrutinising the European Commission’s proposals for drones, said that the drone industry has the potential to create as many as 150,000 jobs across Europe. However it warned that the fledgling industry faced “growing public concerns” over the use of small drones by hobbyists and private individuals, who often have little knowledge of aviation, privacy of safety rules.

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry is enjoying a boom as operators make use of the emerging technology for everything from monitoring vineyards and power lines to filming scenes for blockbuster films and television programmes, including Top Gear and the Harry Potter films.

In response to growing concerns the House of Lords report has called on Government to work with the European Commission to harmonise safety rules, create additional guidance for police forces and to introduce an online database to track commercial and eventually all leisure drone traffic, including an app available to the general public.

“We have a huge opportunity to make Europe a world leader in drone technology,” said committee chairman Baroness O’Cathain. “But there’s also a risk - public understanding of how to use drones safely may not keep pace with people’s appetite to fly them. It would just take one disastrous accident to destroy public confidence and set the whole industry back.”

 

More than 500 commercial operators are  already licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to use drones commercially, compared to half that number at the start of last year. However it’s the availability on the high street of smaller drones weighing less than 20kg, which are far less regulated, that has become an area of concern for police forces, MPs and privacy campaigners.

The House of Lords recommendations come after a string of high-profile incidents and security alerts across Europe, including a sighting of up to 10 unidentified drones over Paris on Wednesday.

In the UK as many as 40 new commercial operators are applying for licenses with the CAA each month, but police are have repeatedly raised concerns about private drone operators, who can purchase a highly capable drone for as little as £300 on the high street.

In January Scotland Yard issued a warning to owners of drones after footage emerged of them being flown illegally around London landmarks, this came after Chief Inspector Nick Aldworth, of the Met’s Specialist Operations unit told the House of Lords inquiry that small drones  were increasingly being used to harass and spy on people. The Met has also raised concerns over drones being used over Premier League football matches in recent months.

The iconic London building, which has 11,000 high-quality pale blue glass panels, was opened to the public in February 2013.

However despite concerns, the CAA has only successfully prosecuted two drone operators for breach of the rules, amid suggestions the law is failing to keep pace with technology and a call from the House of Lords inquiry for police to take the lead role in enforcing safety rules. The committee also recommended the “wider application” of so-called “geo-fencing technology” to programme no-fly areas directly into every drone’s circuit board.

Until now the debate over drone policy has been dominated by questions over military and surveillance uses and the report has called for an “urgent public debate on the state use of drones”. However senior MPs and a former security minister have expressed concerns that the House of Lords report was too narrow in focus and failed to examine the working of the “secretive” cross-department working group that is setting drone policy within government.

Tom Watson, Labour MP and Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones said that the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) Working Group “must be more accountable to parliament and the public.”

Lord West, a former Labour security minister, added that the House of Lords report was “important” for examining the small drone sector, but “effectively ignores” the “terrorist implications and the potential for real hazards to commercial flights”.

He added: “The government should take forward further work on these issues as a matter of urgency.”

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