There was a time, until very recently, when drones were used pretty much only for military purposes. Now, they are used much more widely including for inspection of inaccessible facilities and dangerous structures (such as oil rigs), mapping, aerial photography (including by the news media) and by police and security forces for search and rescue operations, border patrols and general surveillance. They are also used by individuals for recreational purposes and by some for disruptive purposes such as at Gatwick and they are in the hands of extremists for use as weapons.

What are drones?

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles. There are two types: those that are automated and those that are piloted remotely.

What can we expect?

Before we examine the likely impact of drones on our lives let’s examine their history. It might surprise you. It suggests there will be more twists and turns in the use of drones and their impact on our lives.

A brief history of drones

The first drones – that is, unmanned aerial vehicles – is regarded to be the use unmanned balloons in 1782 in France. Pilotless balloons were used by Austria to bomb Venice in 1848. The first pilotless aircraft were built during and shortly after World War I.  In 2002 we saw the first use of a drone in a targeted killing – by the US in Afghanistan.  With falling costs drones became available to groups that before would not have had the funds. In 2004, the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist organization, Hezbollah, began operating drones with the stated goal of arming them for cross-border attacks into Israel.

The first commercial drone permit was issued in the US in 2006 and from there individual, recreational use of drones has taken off. In 2010 a drone was manufactured capable of being controlled by WiFi and ‘piloted’ by smartphone.

How many drones are there?

We don’t know how many drones there are in the world but US authorities estimate that there will be around seven million in the US by 2020 and in the UK more than 500,000 are sold every year.

Should you be concerned?

There are only two recorded instances of drones hitting aircraft in flight and in both instances the aircraft – one a military Hercules, the other a light aircraft – suffered only minor damage and were able to land safely. However, there are hundreds of near misses every year.

Legislation and insurance

Drones are not required to be licenced in the UK and nor is there any requirement for owner registration. As a result, it is difficult to identify the owners of drones. But new registration requirements are coming into effect in November 2019.

Drones caused the closure of Gatwick Airport runways for 36 hours in December. As it was deemed an “extraordinary circumstance” by the Civil Aviation Authority and beyond the control of airlines no passenger compensation was required to be paid by airlines.

Some passengers were able to claim against their travel insurance where their policies covered disruption or travel abandonment.

The Association of British Insurers says “Where illegal drone activity has grounded or diverted flights, as with all flight cancellations or disruption, you should speak to your airline or travel company first who will have certain responsibilities under the law. For additional travel disruption costs, such as missed hotel bookings or already paid for activities that you can no longer make, you should speak to your travel insurer as these may be covered under the terms of your travel insurance depending on the type of cover you have bought.

Will Gatwick-style disruptions occur again?

The drone incident that took place at Heathrow in early January was resolved in a matter of hours and affected only a limited number of flights. If this is anything to go by, airports in the UK have improved their preparedness to combat drone incidents. And police are about to be given new powers to deal with rogue drones.

Disruptions overseas are difficult to predict. The number of drones and their range of uses is set to increase. Legislative controls are likely to be introduced. But there will likely be a deficit in the ability of authorities world-wide to control the use of drones. Further occasional disruptions are therefore likely but, by-and-large, not on the scale of Gatwick.

What should you do?

Compensation from airlines is preferable to claiming costs of disruption through insurance. However, it seems that airline compensation is unlikely to be available. We recommend that travellers ensure that their travel insurance covers disruption caused by drones or ‘travel abandonment’ and ensure that the cover is sufficient to meet all the associated costs such as missed hotel bookings or already paid for activities that you can no longer make.