In July, the government announced a consultation on proposed policies governing the use of drones. Any subsequent draft Drone Bill could cover the powers required by enforcement bodies to police drone usage and penalise owners for improper use, as well as outlining a tracking system for certain types.

Drones are now being used to monitor national infrastructure projects, to deliver blood during disaster relief and even to deliver parcels. Their operation in the UK is covered by the Air Navigation Order 2016 and regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority. But the fact that commercial use is still in its relative infancy means risk managers will need to closely monitor both their implementation and the development of new legislation for challenges faced by early adopters.

Risks to consider

In the US, a survey of risk managers found that invasion of privacy was the overriding concern for 61 per cent of risk managers. In Europe, use of any commercial drone with a camera is covered by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), meaning images of people and any information derived from those images – such as vehicle registration numbers – are protected and must be handled with care. Penalties for serious GDPR breaches can reach up to €20 million or four per cent of annual global turnover, and while it’s unlikely that firms will suffer such consequences in this case, they could be issued a smaller fine, warning or reprimand, or have any breach reported directly to the person affected.

Also of concern is a lack of adequate insurance products being developed to cope with commercial drone programmes. Insurance should cover not only physical loss of the drone itself through theft or damage, but also loss or theft of its payload. This could include anything from expensive surveying equipment to a customer’s package. Insurance should also provide cover for any serious injury or damage to property resulting from a drone crash, as well as any cyber liabilities resulting from loss of digital information contained within the drone itself. Similarly, risk managers will need to consider each area of business that the drone is being employed in to ensure the insurance covers all aspects of its commercial use.

Apart from commercial risks, the UK government has already imposed legislation banning drones  from operating within one kilometre of airport boundaries and from flying at heights above 400 feet. Operators caught flouting these rules face unlimited fines or up to five years in prison. Needless to say, should this happen as the result of a commercial drone programme, the reputational damage to any organisation would be immeasurable. Even when operating within the law, there remain various risks when operating commercial drones, from colliding with military aircraft to disturbing wildlife– a growing concern amongst environmental groups.

Managing risk in a commercial drone programme

DroneDeploy, a cloud software platform for commercial drones, advises risk managers to take a safety-first approach, establishing protocols to reduce risk with the leader of the drone programme, communicating them to the rest of the team and making sure they are adhered to in the field. The company recommends educating employees about potential risks and consequences by purchasing dedicated training and making everyone accountable for the safety and success of the drone programme.

Under UK law, it’s the legal responsibility of anyone who is either an employer or self-employed to complete a risk assessment of their commercial drone operations. Drone expert David Atkinson recommends including a general risk assessment within the operations manual that is submitted to the Civil Aviation Authority before each flight.

Before going out in the field, it’s essential that operators also go through a pre-flight checklist, running through the mission, job site, flight crew and environment. It’s equally important that they check their airspace through flight planning maps such as to make sure they are aware of any navigation warnings within the vicinity, and DroneDeploy recommends developing an internal protocol for checking airspace authorisation before each flight.

If employees are new to drones, automated flights can help reduce the risk of causing injury or damage when starting out in the field. However, it remains important to maintain visual line of sight at all times and be ready to take control of the drone should anything unexpected occur. In a similar vein, emergency procedures should be established long before something goes wrong. The clearer the guidelines, the easier it becomes to manage an emergency situation.

Are drones right for your organisation?

The appeal of commercial drones is definitely growing, but the government’s own consultation shows there is not yet enough consensus on how to best operate and regulate them – either individually or as part of a programme. In the end, that uncertainty is the most fundamental risk.

The government’s consultation remains open until Monday, September 17, 2018. Details about how to respond are available on the consultation webpage.