The Law Com­mis­sion will launch a new project to review the law around autonomous flight, in order to sup­port the safe devel­op­ment of rapid­ly advanc­ing tech­nol­o­gy.

The two-year review is spon­sored by the Future Flight Chal­lenge at UK Research & Inno­va­tion (UKRI) and sup­port­ed by the UK Civ­il Avi­a­tion Author­i­ty (CAA) and Depart­ment for Trans­port (DfT). It will exam­ine the exist­ing legal frame­work to iden­ti­fy the chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties linked to the intro­duc­tion of high­ly auto­mat­ed sys­tems into the avi­a­tion sec­tor.

Automa­tion is already heav­i­ly used in avi­a­tion today, but recent break­throughs have seen the devel­op­ment of new, inno­v­a­tive autonomous and high­ly auto­mat­ed sys­tems and vehi­cles. These include drones, as well as advanced air mobil­i­ty vehi­cles such as eVTOL air­craft.

Increased automa­tion has the poten­tial to deliv­er sub­stan­tial ben­e­fits to the entire avi­a­tion sys­tem, UK indus­try, and the pub­lic. To realise these ben­e­fits, the UK’s leg­isla­tive and reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work needs to be suf­fi­cient­ly agile to facil­i­tate inno­va­tion, whilst robust enough to main­tain the high safe­ty stan­dards that avi­a­tion enjoys.

The project will review exist­ing leg­is­la­tion to iden­ti­fy any leg­isla­tive blocks, gaps or uncer­tain­ties. The Com­mis­sion will con­sult with key stake­hold­ers in the avi­a­tion and inno­va­tion sec­tors, before propos­ing a series of law reforms that will ensure the UK is ready to take advan­tage of oncom­ing advances in automa­tion.

The project out­comes will inform the work of the CAA’s inno­va­tion hub that was set up in 2019 in response to a sig­nif­i­cant increase in inno­va­tion serv­ing the avi­a­tion sec­tor. The hub is play­ing a cru­cial role in get­ting the UK ready for the future of avi­a­tion and enabling inno­va­tions to take to the skies as soon as it is safe, secure and sus­tain­able for them to do so.

The work is fund­ed through the CAA’s part­ner­ship with UKRI to deliv­er reg­u­la­to­ry sup­port to the Future Flight Chal­lenge and will be man­aged by CAA inter­na­tion­al, the CAA’s tech­ni­cal coop­er­a­tion, con­sult­ing and avi­a­tion train­ing arm. The project is expect­ed to start in Sep­tem­ber 2022.

Com­ment­ing on the launch of the project, Nicholas Paines QC, the Law Com­mis­sion­er for Pub­lic Law, said: “Autonomous avi­a­tion sys­tems have seen rapid advances in recent years and car­ry the poten­tial to unlock a wide range of ben­e­fits for UK indus­try and the pub­lic.

“By under­tak­ing a com­pre­hen­sive review of the laws around automa­tion, we can ensure that we have a robust, future­proofed legal frame­work that is able to main­tain the high safe­ty stan­dards in the avi­a­tion sec­tor, whilst also encour­ag­ing inno­va­tion.”

James Bell, act­ing Head of Inno­va­tion at the UK Civ­il Avi­a­tion Author­i­ty, added: “We are absolute­ly com­mit­ted to enabling safe inno­va­tion in avi­a­tion. Hav­ing the right laws and reg­u­la­tion in place eas­es the intro­duc­tion of new tech­nolo­gies and gives con­fi­dence to oth­ers that these changes will main­tain the exist­ing high safe­ty stan­dards of UK civ­il avi­a­tion.”

Simon Mas­ters, Deputy Chal­lenge Direc­tor for the Future Flight Chal­lenge at UKRI said: “We recog­nise that there are sig­nif­i­cant hur­dles to over­come before the wide­spread intro­duc­tion of new avi­a­tion tech­nolo­gies into the UK. By sup­port­ing the Law Com­mis­sion and the CAA in this review we hope to sup­port the devel­op­ment of tech­nol­o­gy and reg­u­la­tion togeth­er.”