Author

Debbie Heywood

Senior Counsel – Knowledge

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Author

Debbie Heywood

Senior Counsel – Knowledge

Read More

21 March 2024

Radar - March 2024 – 1 of 3 Insights

Law Commission consults on regulation of autonomous aviation

  • Briefing

The Law Commission of England and Wales is considering how to update aviation law to cover autonomous aviation, and the House of Commons Public Bill Committee has published a call for views on the UK's Automated Vehicles Bill.

What's the issue?

As the Law Commission comments, there is a lot of aviation law in the UK and it is very prescriptive. There are concerns about gaps, uncertainties or restrictive regulation which could prevent the safe deployment of highly automated and autonomous aviation systems. As part of the UK Research and Innovation Future Flight Challenge, the Law Commission was asked to consult on how to prepare the UK for autonomy in aviation.

What's the development?

The Law Commission launched a consultation on the regulation of aviation autonomy on 26 February 2024. The consultation looks at regulation of self-flying and remotely piloted aircraft (including drones), and advanced mobility vehicles including vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. The consultation looks at safety, rules of the air to reflect remotely piloted craft, and liability issues where there is no pilot on board, in addition to specific types of remotely piloted aircraft. The Law Commission consultation closes on 27 May 2024 and a report is expected towards the end of 2025. A further consultation will look at air traffic management and air navigation services.

Current framework

The current regulatory regime around uncrewed aircraft is focused on two UK Regulations which are assimilated EU law. These adopt a safety-focused, risk-based approach categorising operations as open (low-risk), certified (high-risk) and specific (a residual category for operations which do not fall into the other two). The certification system is the same as for conventional aircraft. The Law Commission suggests this results in gaps and is also concerned that many autonomous flight aircraft will rely on complex AI technologies which will be difficult to certify within the current framework. Views are sought on how to adapt and develop airworthiness and certification regulation.

Rules of the air

Views are sought on how the 'highway code' of the air should be adapted or developed to account for operations with a remote pilot or those that involve highly automated and autonomous aircraft.

VTOLS

VTOLs are currently usually piloted, however in time, it is expected they will be operated remotely. The Law Commission considers this raises legal issues including around responsibility for and management of passenger behaviour, and what happens when one remote pilot is operating more than one VTOL or if there is no remote pilot at all. The Law Commission asks:

  • What the upper limit on number of remote aircraft to be operated by one person should be. 
  • Whether there should always be a role for human oversight, even where humans are not able to intervene directly.
  • How these new services can be made as safe and accessible as possible for people with different travel needs.

Drones

As use cases for drones develop, a higher level of automation is required - for example drones may be required to fly beyond the visual sight of their operators (BVLOS). The key question for the Law Commission is the level of risk this poses to other aircraft and to the public. The Law Commission seeks views on requirements for drone operators in the specific and certified risk categories and asks about remote pilot responsibilities, including where one pilot operates multiple drones.

Civil and criminal liability

The Law Commission is also asking about the approach to commercial and criminal liability for uncrewed aircraft and operations, including around safety, hijacking, carriage of dangerous goods and offences relating to aerodromes. It seeks views on whether the definition of 'hijacking' should be extended to include taking control of an aircraft when not on board.

Call for evidence on Automated Vehicles Bill

Meanwhile, the House of Commons Public Bill Committee published a call for evidence on the Automated Vehicles Bill which was presented to Parliament in November 2023. Written evidence is asked for as soon as possible as the Committee will consider provisions of the Bill in an order it will publish shortly and select amendments. Once it has considered a clause, it will not revisit it. Its first sitting was on 19 March and the Committee is scheduled to report by not later than 18 April 2024.

What does this mean for you?

It is clear that the law needs to be updated to accommodate autonomous and automated transportation with reform of aviation law being further behind than reform of the law relating to automated road vehicles. Those in the automated aviation and vehicles sector may want to respond to the consultation/call for evidence as appropriate.

In this series

Technology, media & communications

Law Commission consults on regulation of autonomous aviation

21 March 2024

by Debbie Heywood

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