Drones, Droids and Food and Drink

17 May, 2017
by: Cripps Pemberton Greenish

Growing up, the only reference you might have had to drones and Pizza dronerobot droids delivering your food was probably the Jetsons cartoon. Yet, with advancing technology and more industries turning to the use of drones and other unmanned vehicles this concept no longer seems so far fetched. The rise of such technology in the food and drink sector requires us to consider how it will coincide with existing laws.

Where is the technology being used?

On 1 December 2016, Just Eat delivered its first take-away meal to a customer in Greenwich using a robot delivery vehicle. Across Europe and New Zealand, Domino’s Pizza has unleashed its pizza delivery drones, dropping food to customers using these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and at the extreme end of the spectrum we have Google and Amazon that are investing vast sums of money into the research and development of ‘flying warehouses’ to act as an aerial hub for delivery services.

Moving outside of the ‘delivery’ realm, agricultural and farming companies are utilising drones for a range of purposes including soil and field analysis, aerial inspections and the monitoring of arable and pastoral stock. The commercial benefits of using UAVs can include time and cost saving to the business as well as increased health and safety standards for existing employees (e.g. by avoiding workers having to climb dangerous structures). However, businesses need to be mindful of how such technology interacts with the various laws e.g. consumer and property laws, aviation regulations and data protection.  

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on the use of drones

In the UK, drones are classified as small aircrafts and are therefore subject to UK aviation laws enforced by the CAA. Unless CAA permission has been granted, you cannot:

  • Fly a drone on a commercial basis (known as ‘conducting aerial work’)
  • Fly a drone over or within 150m of a congested area;
  • Fly a drone within 50m of any person; or
  • Fly a drone within 50m of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under your control.

Larger drones between 20kg and 150kg require operating permissions, an airworthiness certificate and a qualified pilot. Above 150kg, drone operators will either need an EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) Permit or UK Permit to fly. Like the rest of the UK aviation industry, commercial drone operators remain subject to UK health and safety laws.

Data protection regulations

Where drones or delivery robots are fitted with cameras or recording equipment, there will be data protection and privacy issues which will need to be considered. The UK data protection authority, the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office), largely views the images captured by these machines as equivalent to the use of CCTV although with drones there is even greater scope for infringement of privacy as drones can be used to film people in circumstances where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy (for example, their back garden).

Get off my Property!  Trespass and nuisance laws

In certain circumstances, drones can commit trespass when entering private airspace. The rights of a property owner in relation to the airspace above their land are limited to such a height as is necessary for the ordinary use and enjoyment of their land. Simply put, if a drone flies over land at a height that interferes with the landowner’s ordinary use of the land then it will be trespass.

Can a drone constitute a nuisance? The short answer is yes! By way of example a drone used for agricultural or delivery purposes may fly over a landowner’s property multiple times, or hover in one place for an extended period. In doing so, there is a real risk of causing a noise nuisance.

The remedies available to a landowner for trespass and nuisance claims include injunctive relief and damages against the operator of the drone. There is also the risk of a ‘wanna-be’ Elmer Fud taking matters into their own hands and shooting it down although doing so could put that person at risk of sanctions for breach of regulations and criminal damage.  

Damage to property / personal injury

As with all robotic vehicles, drones and delivery robots may malfunction at some point and could cause damage to property or injury to persons. In such cases, the usual principles of negligence will apply, and, if negligent, a business will be liable for foreseeable loss caused. Businesses need to ensure that they have suitable public liability insurance in place and should seek legal advice on the terms and conditions of any agreement.

Other risk assessments include the environment these vehicles operate within e.g. meteorological conditions, airspace, structures, radio and magnetic interference.  Advances in technology such as collision detection, return-to-base, extended battery life and weather proofing can help address these risks and will be an area of rapid advancement.

How can Cripps Pemberton Greenish help?

Cripps Pemberton Greenish has extensive experience in commercial law, consumer law, agricultural and property law. Our experts keep up to speed with evolving technology and its interaction with the law and can help clients understand their position, whether they are considering adopting such technology or have been troubled by it.  If you have any questions, please contact Aleks Wulff aleks.wulff@crippspg.co.uk