Unmanned Aircraft Systems ("UAS"), more commonly referred to as drones, are aerial vehicles that do not carry a human operator, but instead are remotely piloted. Most drones today currently use a spectrum designated for Wi-Fi or model aircraft, which do not require a Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 ("WTA") licence. However, as technology progresses rapidly, this regime is becoming unsuitable for the emerging fleets of drones that can fly at higher altitudes, over longer ranges and sometimes beyond the visual line of sight ("BVLOS") for the operator.

On 10 June 2022, Ofcom launched a consultation, presenting a new UAS licence designed to allow businesses using commercial drones to access the spectrum that they need to harness the full potential of the latest drone technology. The findings of the consultation confirmed that it would be inappropriate to allow advanced UAS's to fall within the exemption, given that their authorised use would run the risk of interference to the technical quality of other services, particularly in regard to the use of mobile networks and other aeronautical systems.

This led to the proposal of the UAS Radio Licence, which authorises the use of advanced technologies for commercial drones, without replacing the existing licence exemption for lower power 2.4GHz and 5GHz equipment which most drones on the market currently fall under.

The UAS licence authorises the use of a range of technologies for drones operating BVLOS, which previous drones have not been permitted or had the technological capabilities to operate, such as:

  • The use of satellite and mobile technologies for connectivity, control, and the transmission of data.

To secure a UAS licence when using satellite and mobile networks, the licensee must have already obtained permission from the relevant network operator to do so. This requirement is considered to be an entirely contractual matter between the mobile network operator ("MNO") and their customers, and the licence requestee shall need to produce to Ofcom a written agreement with their MNO to be granted a licence.

  • A range of specific radio equipment that operators may wish to deploy on a drone including beacons and safety equipment to avoid collisions and integrate safely in the UK's airspace.

To secure a UAS licence when employing radio equipment, Ofcom also leaves further regulation in the hands of the Civil Aviation Authority ("CAA"). The CAA's mandates regulate the safety of aviation and associated equipment in UK airspace, and such regulation must irrefutably be adhered to in addition to the ownership or the exemption of an Ofcom-issued licence for all drones.

Consequently, from 20 January 2023, Ofcom began issuing UAS Operator Radio licences, allowing licensees to operate advanced drones with approved on-board communication technologies and radio equipment.

Ofcom are positive that the introduction of this new licenced approach will foster innovation in line with the government's ambitious commitment, published 18 July 2022, to capitalise on the many commercial opportunities offered by drones in a wide range of sectors such as TMT, healthcare, retail, accommodation, utilities, defence, construction, and professional services.

As for the next steps in this evolving industry, Ofcom have acknowledged that the parameters for drone licences should be regularly reviewed to account for the continuous developments in both technology and airspace safety management. This shall require ongoing involvement from the industry, CAA, government, stakeholders, and other administrations. At present, the licence covers all drones operating in the UK and territorial water and shall be subject to a £75 annual licence fee.

Find Ofcom's Statement here.

Find the standard terms and conditions for the UAS licence as set out by the Wireless Telegraphy Licence Conditions Booklet OfW597 here.

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