Drone Rules and Regulations in UK
Drone use has continued to grow in the UK over the last few years and this trend shows no signs of slowing down. However, with the increasing number of drones taking to UK skies, it is critical that ALL users (including those who fly for fun) are acutely aware of their obligations to keep themselves, other airspace users, and the general public safe at all times – this is the fundamental reason that drone use is subject to UK law through the Air Navigation Order.
This article is in no way intended to scare people away from drones, quite the contrary in fact. Instead, we are aiming to uncover and clarify the details of the past and present (post 31st Dec 2020) UK drone laws and regulations, so users can continue to enjoy drones safely and responsibly.
Drone meaning – What is a ‘drone’?
This term is often banded around to describe virtually anything that flies without a pilot on-board. You may also hear terms such as: UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System), RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems), and many other variations. Essentially, whichever term is used, they all share the common characteristic that the person responsible for piloting the aircraft is not on-board. For the purpose of this article, we are talking about any aerial vehicle which meets this key characteristic, that is affordable, that is available to purchase commercially, and that weighs no more than 25kg.
Drone Flying Rules UK
What is the purpose of the flight? (No longer applicable from 31st Dec 2020)
Due to slight variations in the regulations for different flight purposes, it used to be important to first consider the type of drone flight that you intended to carry out. Generally speaking, your flights would tend to fall under one of the following categories:
- Recreational – where the flight is being conducted purely as an ‘enjoyment’ or sporting activity
- Commercial – where the flight is being conducted for business purposes in return for specific remuneration or other form of valuable consideration
- Private/Non-Commercial – flights that are either:
- not considered to be recreational
- flown for business purposes, but without any remuneration or other valuable consideration being involved
- not considered to be recreational
Drone Regulations UK Explained – How to fly a drone?
Drones being flown solely for recreational purposes did not currently require the user to be tested and certified (in the same way a commercial user was), however, there are still regulations that a recreational drone user MUST comply with when carrying out any recreational flight. In simple terms, the regulations state that you must:
- always keep your drone in sight so you can see and avoid other objects – you may hear this referred to as VLOS (Visual Line Of Sight);
- fly below 400ft to reduce the likelihood of conflict with manned aircraft. If you are flying over hilly/undulating terrain, you should consider how the 400ft rule applies to your flight – see illustration below;
- stay well away from airports and airfields – often referred to as the “Flight Restriction Zone” – see image below;
- follow the drone manufacturer’s instructions on every flight;
- only fly if you are satisfied that the flight can be made safely;
- not cause or permit any object to be dropped from the aircraft;
- remember that legal responsibility lies with you. Failure to fly responsibly could lead to criminal prosecution; and
- not fly the for the purposes of commercial operations, unless the relevant permission has been granted by the Civil Aviation Authority (No longer applicable from 31st Dec 2020)
It used to be the case that if your drone was fitted with some form of on-board camera, you needed to familiarise yourself with further regulations in addition to those listed above. In simple terms, the regulations stated that you must not:
- fly over or within 150 metres of any congested area;
- fly over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1000 people;
- fly within 50 metres of people and/or property that are not under the direct control of the drone user; and
- ensure any images you obtain using the drone do not break privacy laws.
The new regulations no longer contain different separation distances for drones without a camera. Separation distances are now dictated by the aircraft’s flying weight and pilots’ certification level. Of course, adherence to privacy laws must still be observed.
Commercial Drones (No longer applicable from 31st Dec 2020)
There was often confusion over what actually constituted a commercial drone operation. The definition, as stated in the Air Navigation Order was:
“…any flight by a small unmanned aircraft except a flight for public transport, or any operation of any other aircraft except an operation for public transport-
(a) which is available to the public;
(b) which, when not made available to the public,
i. in the case of a flight by a small unmanned aircraft, is performed under a contract between the SUA operator and a customer, where the latter has no control over the remote pilot;
ii. in any other case, is performed under a contract between an operator and a customer, where the latter has no control over the operator,
in return for remuneration or other valuable consideration.”
Confused? You wouldn’t be the first! But worry not, this section is no longer part of the 2021 UK drone regulations.
What can drone users expect for future drone flying laws?
In the wake of the disruptions caused by drone misuse at Gatwick and Heathrow airports, it was inevitable that UK Government would review and make amendments to the UK drone laws and regulations.
Drone Registration UK
- In 2018 the UK Government mandated a drone registration and education scheme, which is due to be launched on the 1st October 2019 and has been a legal requirement under the Air Navigation Order from 30th November 2019
- Anyone operating a drone up to 25 kilograms in the UK must be registered to the scheme
- As part of the scheme, all drone operators are required to take an online foundation test
- Applicable to both recreational and commercial users
- Prerequisite of the A2 C of C and GVC qualifications
- Scheme developed and operated by the Civil Aviation Authority
- Users who fail to register or sit the competency tests could face fines of up to £1,000
- On the 26th April 2019, the CAA launched a consultation for the proposed annual charge of £16.50 per user. You can find full details of the consultation and have your say here.
New Drone Laws UK (in force from 31st Dec 2020)
The new legislation originates from Europe and was originally expected to come into force on July 1st, but was delayed until 31st December 2020 as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The aim of the new drone laws is to standardise the process for drone operations across Europe and avoid differing rules across countries.
The new regulations are intended to remove limitations and ambiguity around commercial and non-commercial drone operations and instead follow guidelines based on:
• The weight of drone being used
• The type of operation being carried out
• The level of risk
• The level of pilot competence
The table below shows the type of operation that you’re now able to conduct under the new ‘Open Category’ based on the Maximum Take-Off Mass (MTOM) of your drone(s) and the formal qualification(s) (if any) you’ll need.
Any drone operation that does not meet the criteria detailed in the above table will be classified as being in the ‘Specific Category’ and will require an Operational Authorisation from the CAA. This can be achieved by completing the General Visual Line of Sight Certificate training.
The new regulations will enable new possibilities for operating drones closer to people, as well as law changes that will allow the commercial use of drones without a PfCO (Permission for Commercial Operation). You can read about the main changes in our quick guide.
Proposal for new powers for Police to tackle misuse
The government is proposing a number of additional powers to enable officers to:
- in accordance with the UK Drone Registration Scheme, ensure that a drone operator has registered themselves and that the remote pilot of the drone has met the required competency requirements;
- check compliance with other legal requirements related to drone use;
- investigate who was flying the drone when an offence was committed;
- prevent an offence from being committed when there is a reasonable suspicion of this happening;
- discourage repeat offending with respect to drone misuse;
- gather key evidence from drones suspected of misuse;
- Issue Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) in relation to certain drone offences under the Air Navigation Order. FPNs will be applicable to those 18 years and over. Any offences committed by under 18s will be dealt with through the current youth framework. Proposal to attach FPNs to the following offences:
- failure to produce registration documentation, and/or proof of registration for drones between 250g and up to and including 25kg in mass;
- not producing evidence that a flight plan was submitted before flying, or that an appropriate Flight Information and Notification System (FINS) is being used, should the decision be taken to mandate the use of FINS;
- failure to produce evidence of any other relevant permissions required by legislation, for example if you are a commercial drone operator or have an exemption from the CAA from an Air Navigation Order 2016 article;
- failure to comply with a police officer when instructed to land a drone;
- flying a drone without a valid acknowledgment of competency, or failure to provide evidence of meeting this competency requirement when requested;
- other offences under the Air Navigation Order.
Q: Do I need a licence to fly a drone?
A: This depends on the weight of your drone and how close you need to operate it to uninvolved people and built-up areas. If you are using a drone weighing more than 250 grams and need to fly closer than 150 metres from a built-up area, you will need either an A2 Certificate of Competency (when using drones less than 2kg) or an Operational Authorisation (when using drones more than 2kg but less than 25kg).
Q: Do I need to register my drone in the UK?
A: All users of drones up to 25kg flying weight will need to register to the UK Drone Registration Scheme, however, the scheme is currently designed to register the person flying rather than the drones themselves. Once registered, the operator will receive a unique ‘Operator ID’ that must be applied to all the drones they are responsible for. Additionally, the operator will receive a unique ‘Flyer ID’, which acts as evidence that the drone user has successfully completed the online theory test. The entire process is online.
Q: When do I need to register to the scheme?
A: The registration scheme became UK law on 30th November 2019. Users of drones between up to 25kg who have not already done so, must complete the registration process before conducting any flight.
Q: What happens if I fail to register to the drone registration scheme by the 30th November?
A: If you get caught operating a drone after the 30th November 2019 without having registered to the scheme, you could face a fine of £1000.
Q: How old do you have to be to fly a drone?
A: There is currently no age restrictions to fly small drones (<250g) in the A1 subcategory of the new “Open Category”. However, the CAA does have a minimum age requirement of 13 years to fly in subcategories A2 and A3 of the Open Category and 14 years to fly in the Specific Category.
Q: Is it legal to fly a drone over private property in the UK?
A: According to UK laws regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority, consumer drones (classed as those that weigh under 25kg) must be flown no higher than 400 feet (120 metres). Whilst new laws now allow sub 25kg drones to be flown close to isolated property, the pilot should always observe privacy laws and seek the permission of the land or property owner before flying. Pilots must also remember that there are formal certification requirements to permit flight of any +250g drone within a built-up area.
Q: Where can I get further information on drone laws and regulations?
A: Below are a selection of links to useful resources: