The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones, is increasing across the real estate sector, and for good reason. Drones have incredible safety and efficiency benefits for business. They are flexible and labour saving, and the ways in which drones are used across the real estate sector is increasing and seems likely to increase further. Organisations are already using drones to conduct external property inspections, at a cost far cheaper than any manual inspection regime. Drones are now being used for insurance valuations and heat seeking drones can be instrumental in ascertaining whether a building has damp. All of this information can then be shared digitally. It has even been suggested by trend analysts that drone inspections could replace physical property viewings entirely by 2025.
Of course all technology can be used for good and for bad, and drones are no different. Here in the UK, as the number of drones in the air continues to grow exponentially, lawmakers are grappling with drone safety and security concerns. At the same time, public awareness around the misuse of drone technology is growing. In recent months, we have seen a drone cause a main infrastructure bridge to close down and major airports brought to a standstill by the unlawful use of drone technology.
As a result, despite the clear technological and economic advantages to drone technology for the commercial market sector, we have seen some resistance to drone technology from members of the public and landowners. Coventry City Council has recently joined other councils and announced plans to implement a general ban on drones in parks and open spaces unless permission to fly a drone is sought and granted from the council. As landowners, councils are primarily concerned about the liabilities they could incur from any damage caused to people or property on council land and also from increases in trespass and nuisance incidents.
In response to recent drone incidents, the government has announced plans to extend the no-fly parameters around major infrastructure and to provide the police with greater powers to seize drones and fine their misuse. Currently however, the laws surrounding the interaction of drones and property remain untouched.
Article 95 of the Air Navigation Order states that drones cannot be flown within 50m of a person, vehicle or building “not under your control”. There is little guidance on the meaning of “not under your control” when it comes to airspace but the case of Bernstein of Leigh v Skyviews & General Ltd  establishes that a landowner’s airspace extends to such height as is necessary to ensure the ordinary use and enjoyment of the land. However, drones flying closer than 50m to private property do not necessarily trigger claims of trespass, as demonstrated in Anchor Brewhouse Developments Ltd v Berkeley House (Docklands Developments) Ltd ; there must be a degree of regularity and permanence to the infringement.
As drones become more popular and their uses evolve, it is clear that the law and drone technology need to develop, particularly as landowners are likely to want to embrace this new technology and take advantage of the unique opportunities and perspectives that drones present. We must strike the right balance between innovation and security in order to enable the many benefits of commercial drones, while preventing the bad.