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.”