UK Drone Law made simple, answering some unanswered questions and providing some advice…

At the moment the use of ‘drones’ seems to be making big news when the rules to staying legal are actually fairly simple, yet time and time again online you can see videos which have broken these simple rules or people asking for clarification…

The CAA has set up a website in the UK which simplifies these rules in an attempt to make them easy to understand (dronesafe.uk), however I think they have over simplified them, on the Dronesafe website there are 6 basic rules to follow for non-commercial drone flights, of which are below, and in addition I have added important relevant information from the Air Navigation Order, basically the law for hobby use of aircraft under 7kg in weight.

  • Always keep your drone in sight – This means maintaining visual contact with your drone, don’t fly it too far away, don’t fly it behind tree’s/buildings, being able to see where you are on a small screen is not visual contact… Article 94 Section 3 of the Air Navigation Order states: “The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the aircraft sufficient to monitor its flight path in relation to other aircraft, persons, vehicles, vessels and structures for the purpose of avoiding collisions.” So not only do you have to be able to see it, you have to be able to see it well enough to know it’s orientation…
  • Stay below 400ft (120m) – This rule is to simply reduce the chances of coming in contact with manned aircraft, notice ‘reduce the chances’ and not ‘completely eliminate’ or ‘you have right of way under this altitude’ you are still expected to avoid a collision, but thats ok because you’ll be following rule one and be able to see your drone so you can take nice early avoiding action if required… Article 94 Section 4C of the Air Navigation Order States: “at a height of more than 400 feet above the surface unless it is flying in
    airspace described in sub-paragraph (a) or (b) and in accordance with the requirements for that airspace.”

Oh so hang on, there are exceptions?! What are they?

Well… Section 4A states “in Class A, C, D or E airspace unless the permission of the appropriate air traffic control unit has been obtained;” and Section B states: “within an aerodrome traffic zone during the notified hours of watch of the air traffic control unit (if any) at that aerodrome unless the permission of any such air traffic control unit has been obtained”

So there you go, there are the exceptions, you can claim an exemption to these conditions by getting clearance/permission but good luck being granted either of those for hobby use…

  • Every time you fly your drone you must follow the manufacturers instructions – This is to make sure you do a pre and post flight check, to make sure you batteries hold enough charge for the planned flight, to make sure you have good signal and little interference, if you end up in court, can you honestly say you tried your best to avoid an incident?! Article 94 Section 2 states: “The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft may only fly the aircraft if reasonably satisfied that the flight can safely be made.”
  • Keep the right distance from people and property – The dronesafe site says 150ft (50m) from people or property and 500ft (150m) from crowds or built up areas… This is actually a very simplified version of the legislation, Article 241 of the Air Navigation Order states: “A person must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property” that ones nice and straight forward, Article 94 Section 1 of the Air Navigation Order states: “A person must not cause or permit any article or animal (whether or not attached to a parachute) to be dropped from a small unmanned aircraft so as to endanger persons or property.”

So, no sweetie or doll drops… Or drops of anything else for that matter…

Then it starts to get a little more complicated…

Article 95 Section 1 of the Air Navigation Order states: “The person in charge of a small unmanned surveillance aircraft must not fly the aircraft in any of the circumstances described in paragraph (2) except in accordance with a permission issued by the CAA.”

So what exactly are these circumstances described? And what is a ‘small unmanned surveillance aircraft’ i thought we were talking about drones here?!

Well, Section 5 of Article 95 of the Air Navigation Order states “‘a small unmanned surveillance aircraft’ means a small unmanned aircraft which is equipped to undertake any form of surveillance or data acquisition.”

Ok so thats as clear as mud but basically if your ‘drone’ has a camera which can take photos or videos, or the ability to log data, it is a small unmanned surveillance aircraft…

So what are these other circumstances i hear you ask?!

Well, Section 2 states “(a) over or within 150 metres of any congested area; (b) over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons; (c) within 50 metres of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft; or (d) subject to paragraphs (3) and (4), within 50 metres of any person.”

Subject to paragraphs 3 and 4?! So there are exceptions to the exceptions?!?! And what is classed as a ‘Congested Area’ anyway?

Well, Sections 3 states: “(3) Subject to paragraph (4), during take-off or landing, a small unmanned surveillance aircraft must not be flown within 30 metres of any person.”

So simply you can get closer then 50m to any person for take off and landing, but not any closer than 30m… Any person?! Does that include the pilot?!

No, the other exception which is in Section 4 states: “(4) Paragraphs (2)(d) and (3) do not apply to the person in charge of the small unmanned surveillance aircraft or a person under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft.”

So, if you are the person in control of the drone, or have control of the people near the drone, you can fly essentially fly as close as you wish, not advised for safety reasons, but legally allowed…

But you’ve still not told us what a Congested area is?!

Well “The Air Navigation Order defines a congested area as being ‘any area of a city, town or settlement which is substantially used for residential, industrial, commercial or recreational purposes’.”

…again, not exactly clear and requires application of some common sense…

A back garden? Well maybe if your house is isolated in the middle of nowhere but not in a built up area…

A Park? If it’s over 150 meters away from properties and 50m away from people you can possibly argue your case, but it is still an area that is ‘substantially used for recreational purposes’ in my mind

On a beach? Again it will depend on what beach, travel to the Scottish highlands and it’s a non issue in most cases, hit a beach that can at times be busy like Southend or Brighton then i would say essentially they are ‘substantially used for recreational purposes’ as well, and are those seafront properties really over 150 meters away? In most cases I would say probably not…

Ultimately you need to apply common sense to your choice of flying location, get as far away from buildings and people as you can, it will ultimately be people that put in a complaint either about noise, safety or privacy (usually with no grounds on that one) and see you in hot water, there have also been cases of people being prosecuted due to video’s and images published on Social media and video sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo and kill joys everywhere so just be very mindful of your flying locations.

  • You are responsible for each flight – Legal responsibility lies with YOU. Failure to fly responsibly could result in criminal prosecution… Not really much explanation needed for that one, and lastly…
  • Stay well away from aircraft, airports and airfields – If your drone endangers the safety of an aircraft it is a criminal offence carrying a sentence of up to 5 years! What their definition of ‘well away’ is i cannot tell you, but take your idea of ‘well away’ and add a few miles, no drone flight is worth the risk of going to prison over or endangering life!

The basic rules are very straight forward, but the background information certainly helps to clarify the situation and add additional information to those rules, “What is a congested area?” being one many people seem to seek clarification on…

I do however think there are a couple of important points that should have also been included, commercial operations for one, and insurance for another…

The definition of commercial operations is:

“”commercial operation” means any operation of an aircraft other than for public transport –

(a) which is available to the public; or

(b) which, when not made available to the public, 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”

As a drone flyer/operator falling under section A is never going to happen, however section B is quite easy to fall foul of, Money being the obvious one, don’t accept money for photos or video, period! The not so obvious ones are goods or services… “I’ll take some pictures of your farm if you give me some free produce” or “I’ll take a quick aerial video of your house if you buy me a new case/battery for my drone” or the exchange or services “If you can take an aerial picture of a garden i have just landscaped i’ll do yours for free?” or “If you take an aerial video of me driving my 4×4 offroad i’ll allow you free access to the offroad site instead of paying?” While no money is changing hands, these are indeed commercial transactions so think twice before you say yes, commercial operations need training, a PFCO/PFAW and Insurance for commercial operations…

Now we have landed on the subject of insurance, do you need it for hobby use? The answer here is without any doubt at all, yes!

Third party cover although not compulsory is in my mind essential, if your drone was to injure a person resulting in being sued for large medical bills or accidentally land on the bonnet of a Ferrari causing extensive damage are you really prepared to stand in court and risk loosing your house over the sake of some third party insurance which can be obtained for as little as £20-35… I’m certainly not…

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