Insights Ofcom announces new drone licence regime enabling further unmanned flight capabilities

In June 2022 Ofcom launched a consultation process proposing a new licensing regime for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) granting spectrum rights for essential drone safety and communications (the Licence). Following Ofcom’s announcements in December 2022 regarding the outcomes of the consultation, on 20 January 2023 Ofcom began accepting Licence applications and issued updated guidance on how to apply for the Licence.

The Licence provides UAS operators with greater access to spectrum for an expanded range of technologies to enable a wider range of commercial services to be delivered by UAS, including UAS that operate autonomously beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Initiatives have already commenced exploring how UAS can be used to meet healthcare and critical supply needs in remote communities and to support search and rescue missions.

Under the Licence, UAS operators will have spectrum authorisation to use an array of safety, location tracking and communications radio equipment on a drone. The Licence will cover UAS systems such as radars, altimeters, beacons, VHF Communications, Mobile Network User Equipment, Satellite Earth Station Communications and Air Traffic Control Transponders. These technologies are key enablers for UAS to travel further and to meet equipment and safety requirements from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to operate safely within UK airspace, including BVLOS.

Not all technologies however on UAS will be subject to the Licence:

  • The use of spectrum frequencies designated for Wi-Fi and Model Aircrafts are exempt under Ofcom’s IR 2030 UK Interface Requirements Licence for short range devices.[1] Such UAS however have limited range due to radio power limitations.
  • Receive-only devices such as GPS receivers are exempt from licencing requirements under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006.

Here are some of the key conditions of the Licence:

  • The Licence fee is £75.
  • Licence use is limited to the designated spectrum across the UK and territorial waters (excluding international flights).
  • Licence is perpetual, provided the Licence fee is fully paid and the licensee does not breach its terms.
  • Specific equipment can only be operated and used by an individual who holds a valid Flight Radio Telephony Operator’s Licence issued by the CAA (or a similar national aviation authority), unless otherwise stated in the Air Navigation Order 2016.
  • Licensees must obtain written agreement from a mobile or satellite network operator before using their network for the relevant UAS application.
  • Licensees must ensure any electromagnetic fields generated by licensable equipment does not exceed limits set by the International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection.

To read Ofcom’s guidance on the Licence, please click here.

We frequently advise clients on potential legal, regulatory and commercial issues arising at the forefront of converging technologies in the telecoms sector. Get in touch if you’d like to have a further discussion about your project and we’d be delighted to assist.

[1] WiFi devices use 2.4GHz (2.4-2.4835GHz) and 5.8GHz (5.725-5.875GHz) while model aircraft use 35MHz frequency.