Commercial drones set for take-off under new Ofcom plans
Ofcom is helping pave the way for a revolution in commercial services delivered by drones, under a new licensing regime proposed today.
Advances in technology have led to drones increasing in size and complexity, and flying over longer distances – in some cases travelling beyond the sight of the operator.
This has created a range of commercial opportunities across several industries, from doorstep deliveries to machinery maintenance. But long-distance, high-altitude drones still need to be controlled from the ground and send back data or video to the operator.
We’ve been working closely with the Government and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to develop a new approach for authorising the radio equipment needed on these drones. We are proposing to introduce new spectrum licences that allow operators to use mobile and satellite networks to achieve this.
As the regulator of the radio spectrum, Ofcom currently allows drones to use airwaves designated for model aircraft or for Wi-Fi. This does not require a licence, but is unsuitable for the services offered by the latest generation of drones.
Recently, we have been supporting innovative trials that have enabled organisations to research, develop and test new types of wireless equipment on drones. These include:
- Royal Mail exploring ‘postal drone routes’ to make deliveries to remote communities, with test flights for the new service covering an almost 100-mile round trip in rural Scotland;
- a transport link between Southampton Hospital and St Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight for delivery of urgent medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic; and
- the deployment of drones in industrial settings to inspect, monitor and maintain machinery.
Following the promising results of these pioneering projects, we are proposing to authorise the use of a range of technologies to support drone use which is not currently permitted today.
The CAA sets out the rules governing how and where commercial drones can be flown safely. Along with the Government, it is currently developing a framework for how they can be integrated into UK airspace.
Ofcom’s new licences would also authorise the use of safety equipment to enable drones to operate safely in UK airspace.
This should enable the CAA and Department for Transport to further progress their wider airspace policy proposals.
Commercial drones have the potential to bring a whole host of benefits, such as delivering vital supplies or assisting search and rescue operations in remote locations. We want to ensure that businesses pioneering these projects can access the spectrum they need to harness the full potential of the latest drone technology.
Helen Hearn, Ofcom’s Spectrum Interim Group Director
Notes to editors
- Today’s consultation on our proposals is open until 5 September 2022. We plan to publish our decision by November.
- Our proposals only cover the radio spectrum that can be authorised for use and do not supersede any aviation safety rules or requirements. Therefore, a drone spectrum licence does not necessarily indicate that the CAA has permitted the equipment to be carried.
- Although the proposed licence provides the framework for authorisation of the use of mobile terminals on a commercial drone, the licensee would need to have obtained a written agreement from the mobile network operator prior to use. It would be up to each mobile operator to decide whether they wish to permit this use, as they may not be in a position to allow such use on their networks.