UK Drone Laws of the Air
The legal overview
While the subject of air law may seem a bit daunting at first glance, it needn’t be. Nearly all air law is about being sensible. Any right-minded person would agree that flying an aircraft while incapacitated through drugs or alcohol is not a good idea: perhaps it is not a great surprise to find that it is also illegal. Any good pilot would agree that an aircraft should be inspected before flight: it is also a legal requirement. Ninety-nine percent of air law falls into this ‘be sensible’ category.
What is perhaps more surprising to the layman is that model aircraft (legally termed Small Unmanned Aircraft (SUA)) also come within the scope of Air Law. So the key point you must understand is that, as far as UK Law is concerned, all model aircraft / R/C aircraft / quads / drones etc. are AIRCRAFT, and must be flown in accordance with the relevant Air Law.
As a European Union member state, the UK is subject to the over-arching aviation legislation created by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Within the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority is the responsible body, and the Civil Aviation Act and the Air Navigation Order (ANO) form the basis of the UK’s domestic air law and airspace legislation. The ANO contains more than 120 Articles of law covering airworthiness, operation of aircraft, documentation, licensing and so on. It also includes a number of Schedules (appendices) which provide supplementary detail.
The uk Air Navigation Order
Small Unmanned Aircraft are specifically excluded from most articles of the ANO by Article 253. The key articles that do apply are Articles 138, 166 and 167.
Endangering safety of any person or property
A person must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property.
Small Unmanned Aircraft
1) 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.
2) The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft may only fly the aircraft if reasonably satisfied that the flight can safely be made.
3) 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.
4) The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft which has a mass of more than 7kg excluding its fuel but including any articles or equipment installed in or attached to the aircraft at the commencement of its flight, must not fly the aircraft:
(a) in Class A, C, D or E airspace unless the permission of the appropriate air traffic control unit has been obtained;
(b) 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; or
(c) 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.
5) The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft must not fly the aircraft for the purposes of aerial work except in accordance with a permission granted by the CAA.
Small Unmanned Surveillance Aircraft
1) 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.
2) The circumstances referred to in paragraph (1) are:
(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.
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.
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.
5) In this article ‘a small unmanned surveillance aircraft’ means a small unmanned aircraft which is equipped to undertake any form of surveillance or data acquisition.
The CAA summarise 166 and 167 as follows: In essence therefore, provided the aircraft has a mass of 20 kg or less, the current regulations state:
- The operation must not endanger anyone or anything.
- The aircraft must be kept within the visual line of sight (normally taken to be within 500 m horizontally and 400 ft vertically) of its remote pilot (i.e. the ‘person in charge’ of it). Operations beyond these distances must be approved by the CAA (the basic premise being for the operator to prove that he/she can do this safely).
- Small unmanned aircraft (irrespective of their mass) that are being used for surveillance purposes are subject to tighter restrictions with regard to the minimum distances that you can fly near people or properties that are not under your control. If you wish to fly within these minima, permission is required from the CAA before operations are commenced.
- CAA permission is also required for all flights that are being conducted for aerial work (i.e. in very simple terms, you are getting paid for doing it).
- The ‘remote pilot’ has the responsibility for satisfying him/herself that the flight can be conducted safely.
Commercial UAS operations (Drone laws)
From the above information it should be clear that operating drones commercially requires CAA permission. Getting this permission is an involved and expensive undertaking – with annual renewal expenses. A CAA document ‘CAP 722’ provides further information
First Person View (FPV) and the law
At first it would appear that FPV flying could fall under article 167 for small unmanned surveillance aircraft because a camera might be regarded as being ‘surveillance’ equipment. However this is clarified in CAP 722 article 3.4 in Section 3 Chapter 1 page 2: “The provision of image or other data solely for the use of controlling or monitoring the aircraft is not considered to be applicable to the meaning of ‘Surveillance or Data Acquisition’ covered at Article 167 for SUSA.”
However if the video is captured in some way and used for other purposes the CAA considers the flight to have been for data acquisition and article 167 does apply.
There is also a CAA exemption from Article 166(3) for FPV fliers where the criteria of the exemption are met and the stipulations are followed: This is discussed in more detail in Chapter 6.
Incident and accident reporting
Commercial dones (SUA) should operate as though they were manned aircraft, and accidents and incidents should be reported to the Air Accident Investigation Branch and the CAA using the Mandatory Occurrence Reporting scheme.
In the case of accidents and incidents involving recreational drones (SUA) there are no such requirements.
There is no UK legal requirement for recreational drones (SUA) to be covered for third-party liability.
See the next section here: No-Fly Zones