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 current UK drone laws and regulations, and also to explain what drone users can expect for the future, so users can continue to enjoy drones safely and responsibly.
What is meant by the term ‘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 20kg.
Current UK drone laws
What is the purpose of the your flight?
Due to slight variations in the regulations for different flight purposes, it is important to first consider the type of drone flight that you intend to carry out. Generally speaking, your flights will 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
Recreational Flight (also applicable to Private/Non-Commercial)
Drones being flown solely for this purpose do not currently require the user to be tested and certified (in the same way a commercial user is), 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 grated by the Civil Aviation Authority.
If your drone is fitted with some form of on-board camera, you need to familiarise yourself with further regulations in addition to those listed above. In simple terms, the regulations state that you must not:
- fly over or within 500ft of any congested area;
- fly over or within 500ft of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1000 people;
- fly within 150ft 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.
There is often confusion over what actually constitutes a commercial drone operation. The definition, as stated in the Air Navigation Order is:
“…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!
Our basic translation of this definition is that if you intend to make a financial benefit in relation to the drone service you provide, the operation would be classed as a commercial drone flight, and so the relevant regulations will apply. The official definition of ‘Commercial Operation’ along with example scenarios can be found here.
The same fundamental operating regulations that apply to recreational use also apply to commercial operators, but there is one key difference: If you have identified yourself as someone that will conduct commercial drone flights, you will require Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO) from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) before you carry out any chargeable drone service. Achievement of your PfCO acts as evidence that you have demonstrated sufficient levels of general pilot competence in the form of an understanding of aviation theory and piloting ability. The PfCO is split into two main permission classes; Standard Permission and Non-Standard Permission. The Standard Permission entitles a drone user to conduct commercial operations and also permits operations within a congested area. The Non-Standard Permission covers all other types of drone flight and addresses operations that contain a greater element of operating risk. Further information on the requirements to carry out commercial operations can be found here.
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.
UK Drone Registration Scheme
- In 2018 the UK Government mandated a drone registration and education scheme, which is due to be launched on the 1st October 2019 and is a legal requirement under the Air Navigation Order from 30th November 2019
- Anyone operating drones or model aircraft between 250 grams and 20 kilograms in the UK must register to the scheme by the end of November 2019
- From the same period, all drone operators will be required to take an online safety test
- Applicable to both recreational and commercial users
- NOT a replacement of the current Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO)
- 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
Proposal for new powers for Police to tackle misuse
Government are 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 20kg 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 acknowledgement of competency, or failure to provide evidence of meeting this competency requirement when requested;
- other offences under the Air Navigation Order, such as flying a camera-equipped drone within 50m of people, vehicles or buildings.
Q: Do I need a licence to fly a drone?
A: If you fly exclusively for leisure purposes (ie. you don’t make money from any of your drone activities), you do not currently require a licence to fly. However, from the 30th November 2019 you will be required to take an online drone safety course and competency test.
Q: Do I need to register my drone in the UK?
A: All users of drones or model aircraft between 250g and 20kg will need to register to the UK Drone Registration Scheme, however, the scheme is designed to register operators rather than the drones themselves. Once registered, the operator will receive a unique code that must be applied to all the drones they are responsible for. The entire process will be online.
Q: When do I need to register to the scheme?
A: The planned launch date for the scheme is the 1st October 2019. Registrations for current users will need to be made by the 30th November 2019.
Q: What happens if I fail to register to the scheme by the 30th November?
A: If you get caught operating a drone after the 30th November 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 for leisure purposes. However, the CAA does have a minimum age requirement of 18 to have a permission issued allowing operators to conduct any commercial operations with their drone. Having said this, Government are considering a minimum age restriction on ownership of drones over 250g.
Q: Where can I get further information on drone laws and regulations?
A: Below are a selection of links to useful resources: