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‘Drones’ is the word commonly used to refer to UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. They are also known as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). It was in the 1930s that remotely controlled aircraft started being used as targets for gunnery practice. After World War Two there was a gradual increase in their use for military reconnaissance purposes, which has increased dramatically in recent years as telecommunication technology has advanced. However, it is only very recently that significant non-military uses of drones have been made, both for leisure and a growing number of commercial applications.

Civilian applications of UAVs include agriculture, search and rescue, deliveries, TV and film, and inspection of inaccessible items, particularly in the offshore and renewable energy industries.

Use of UAVs for inspection purposes offshore on the UKCS began as far back as 2011, when they began being used for flare tip inspections. In January 2017 Oil and Gas UK published guidance giving advice on safe operation of UAVs and on the regulatory requirements in terms of civil aviation. UAVs have also been used in the North Sea to inspect the tanks of operational FPSOs and for monitoring the structural integrity of inaccessible parts of installations. All of these tasks would have required personnel to work in dangerous conditions for hours or even days but can often be completed in minutes with a UAV, at no risk to the operator.

Regulation of drones for commercial use broadly depends on their mass. Above 150Kg they are subject to European standards on aviation safety applicable to all aircraft. Very few commercial drones will be that heavy.

Below 150Kg national laws apply, enforced by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Above 20Kg, a drone must be registered with the CAA and have a Certificate of Airworthiness. An operator can apply for an exemption from this.

A drone operator must be satisfied that a flight can be made safely, must remain in visual contact with the drone, may not use the drone to drop things if it would endanger people or property and must remain below 400 feet without air traffic control clearance.

If the drone is being used for surveillance or data gathering then it must also keep a minimum distance from people or buildings.

The operator must also apply for a Permission for Aerial Work (PFAW) from the CAA. The operator must show that they have passed exams run by a recognised training provider and have arranged adequate insurance cover. If this is granted, it is for 12 months, with conditions, and can be renewed.

Drone operators should also have regard to privacy and Data Protection considerations.

If you have any queries in relation to the above please get in touch with a member of the Stronachs Upstream Oil & Gas Team.

Graham Chandler, Trainee Solicitor

Chambers Leading Firm 2019

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