Back in December 2018, a group of individuals caused chaos at London’s Gatwick airport when all flights had to be suspended due to a drone flying in the area. Then, in April of this year, despite new regulations, an aircraft had a near-miss with another drone at Gatwick.
The whole debacle not only caused a lot of bad press for recreational drone flyers such as myself and you guys, but it also got me thinking about the actual laws behind drone flying in the UK.
Of course, you’d think it goes without saying that flying a drone by the airport is a no-go, and most drones are equipped with tech to prevent you from doing such things. But what about beyond the obvious…
Do you need a drone license to fly a drone in the UK? Are there any laws and restrictions limiting the height it can be flown in certain areas? What about London? Let’s take an in-depth look into what you need to know before you start flying your drone in the UK.
Are Drones Legal in the UK?
Of course! Drones are legal and here to stay! However, you still do have to abide by the laws of the 2016 Air Navigation Order and if you don’t, you could be prosecuted. The articles of interest are 94 (which governs small, unmanned aircraft), article 95 (which covers small, unmanned surveillance aircraft), and section 241 which states “A person must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property.”
Will Drones Ever Be Banned in the UK?
Despite the recent controversy and incidents surrounding drones, I think it’s highly unlikely that drones will be banned altogether. In my opinion, it would take a very extreme incident for such measures to be put in place. However, they are banned from flying in certain restricted areas such as airports and over military bases for safety and security reasons. After the whole Gatwick controversy, you are now not allowed to fly your drone within 5km of an airport; prior to the incident, it was 1km.
Do I Need a Drone License in the UK
Under current UK law, you don’t need a license as such to fly a drone, providing it weighs less than 20kg. However, new legislation that was introduced in November 2019 now requires all drone owners with a drone weighing between 250g and 20kg to both obtain a Flyer ID by doing an online safety test and then get an Operator ID.
Those that fail to do this could face a £2,000 fine.
The Flyer ID is specific to the person intending to fly the drone. If the pilot is under the age of 13, then a parent/guardian has to register the pilot, but the pilot will still need to take the test themselves.
The operator is the person who takes legal responsibility for ensuring that only the registered flyer flies their particular drone. If you own the drone, you’re the pilot and you’re over 18 you can do this application yourself. If you’re a parent/guardian, however that has purchased the drone for a child who is under 18, you will have to do the application on their behalf and you will be responsible for your child’s drone.
The operator ID number must be displayed on the drone.
More information and the application to register your drone with the CAA can be found here.
Remember if you have the new Mavic Mini, you won’t need to register the drone as it weighs 249g. Having said that, if you have added any upgrades to it such as a skin then you will need to register the drone as that will put you over the weight limit.
Registering your drone and obtaining Operator/Flyer IDs will cost £9 and is billed annually and the application takes around 30 minutes to complete.
For drones over 20kg, you need special authorization from the CAA and your drone will be classed as a large unmanned aircraft. To find out more about large unmanned aircraft, refer to the CAA website.
Can I Fly a Drone Over Private Property in the UK?
You can fly a drone over private property in the UK, but there are some regulations regarding how close to properties you can fly. You must ensure that your drone is at least 50 meters away from any person or private property at all times; of course, if you’re flying the drone around a friend then that’s fine as long as you have their permission.
Can I Fly My Drone in My Garden?
This question is a little difficult to answer as technically if you’re within 50 meters of someone else’s garden you aren’t adhering to the law and it could be classed as an invasion of their privacy. My best advice would be to speak to your neighbors; communicate that you’re only using it for recreational purposes and aren’t filming them and see if they’re happy to let you fly the drone in your garden. The last thing you want is a knock on the door from the police.
Can I Fly A Drone in London or Other Urban Areas?
In urban areas, the above rule applies but is slightly modified. In urban, built-up areas you must ensure that your drone is at least 150m away from people and buildings and you can’t fly over buildings like you can with regular houses in non-urban areas.
It’s worth noting too that if you’re at a special event, say a concert or a festival, the 150m rule would apply to this too. The reason behind this is because of broadcasting rights. For example, you could just throw some epic footage of Glastonbury on Facebook and Youtube and the BBC would likely get a little peeved that you’re airing the show for free when they’re the sole broadcasters for the event and make money from TV licensing.
Can I Fly A Drone at the Beach in the UK?
As the beach is a public area, you can certainly fly your drone around it. You do need to remember the 50m rule, however, if your drone has a camera fitted to it. Remember, people are less likely to want to be filmed if they’re bikini-clad enjoying the sunshine.
Shooting Down of Drones
Though it could be frustrating to some people if you’re flying your drone over their property, legally, in the UK they are not allowed to shoot it down – even if you were breaking the law in terms of the privacy issues and flying the drone too close to the property.
The UK is not very liberal when it comes to possessing firearms in the first place, and only the police or military personnel have the right to shoot down drones in the UK and only in extreme cases. So what happened at Gatwick? Why wasn’t that drone shot out of the sky?
In short, the drone pilots were flying the drone pretty elusively. There were officers there with firearms, however, the drone kept randomly appearing then disappearing in different spots and shooting it could’ve caused more harm than good – especially so close to an airport with many civilians about.
In addition to this, say if you shot down a drone for example, and it crashed into someone injuring them, you would be liable – same goes if someone else’s property is damaged after shooting down a drone.
In an extreme case, if you were to attempt to shoot down a drone and missed and the bullet killed someone, you would be charged, at the very minimum, with manslaughter.
I am a Holidaymaker. Can I Bring My Drone to the UK?
Absolutely, but don’t forget to abide by all the UK drone laws. Also, from November 2019, if you want to fly your drone, even if you’re from overseas, you will still have to ensure that the drone is registered and that you passed the safety test.
This, of course, just applies if you intend to fly the drone recreationally. If you want to fly your drone for commercial purposes in the UK, you will need to get permission from the CAA. You can find their application form here.
Do I need Permission to Fly my Drone in the UK?
In short, the answer is no – but let’s look at this in more detail.
As I mentioned in other sections of the article, there are some rules and regulations surrounding drone flying within the UK. If you plan on flying your drone within 50m of a person or their private property, you’ll need permission from them, preferably written so that you have proof should you require it.
If you plan on flying the drone for commercial purposes, you’ll need permission from the CAA.
If you’ve got a huge drone (larger than 20kg) you’ll also need permission from the CAA to operate large unmanned aircraft.
Also, if you want to fly your drone above the 400ft limit that has been set in the UK, or want to fly within 150m of urban areas you’ll need to apply for special permission and demonstrate that you are fully capable of operating the drone safely. As a general rule, the more that you want to “push the boundaries”, the more proof you’ll have to provide.
Flying Your Drone for Commercial Purposes
If you want to fly your drone commercially, whether you’re a UK national or not, you need to apply to the CAA for permission. As part of the application process, you’ll also need to attend a course where they will assess whether or not you can safely and securely pilot the aircraft whilst obeying current laws and regulations.
How do you know if you’re flying the drone for commercial purposes or not? Well, the key elements as defined by the CAA are ‘…any flight by a small unmanned aircraft…in return for remuneration or other valuable consideration’
Any permission that is granted by the CAA will be valid for 12 months, at which point you can renew if necessary. There are two types of permissions that the CAA grants for commercial operations; standard and non-standard. For non-standard permissions there are lots of factors to take into account, and, regardless of the type of permission you have, you’ll be required to have appropriate insurance to cover the commercial operation.
If you want to know how much you’ll need to pay to operate a drone commercially in the UK, you can find the updated list of charges here.
European Drone Legislation Affecting UK Drone Pilots
In June 2020, new European drone regulations were set to impact flyers in the UK but this legislation was delayed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. These new regulations will now come into effect on December 31st 2020.
The current commercial registration system (PfCO) is set to be replaced and is going to make the whole ambiguity of what a commercial/personal drone is much clearer and could potentially allow drone pilots to fly as close as 5m to people.
But what about Brexit?
Well, as this law is set to start on December 31st, the UK will technically still be in their transition period and will, therefore, have to abide by this new law. We will provide you with more of the specifics of this closer to the time, but you can read more on the CAA here.
To conclude, always follow the drone code and fly your drone within the line of sight at less than 400ft. The UK has a great online resource for flying your drone safely; dronesafe.uk. In addition to this, there are numerous drone safety apps out there too. My favorite is Drone Assist and it’s available on both IOS and Android. It provides up to date and accurate information on where you can and can’t fly, and, areas where you should be extremely cautious. It’s powered by NATS, the main Air Traffic Control provider.
Do you have any questions about flying your drone in the UK? If so, feel free to comment below and I’d be happy to help. As a UK national and drone pilot myself, I have done countless hours of research into the laws of piloting drones in the UK and would be happy to help with any questions; large or small.
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