Whether you’re new to flying drones or want to review the latest legislation, commercial drone operator Darren Giles breaks down what you need to know
So, you’ve just unboxed your shiny new DJI Mavic Air or [insert model here], charged the batteries and are ready to head out and film some epic aerial footage… Hold up for just one minute! There are a few things you really need to know first, even if you’ve been flying drones for a while. New laws have just been introduced (30/07/2018), so there’s no better time to brush up on your knowledge of UK drone rules and your responsibilities as a pilot. To make things easier, I’ve put together this guide to give you the lowdown on drone legislation and a few handy tips to help you stay within the law.
Why the change?
The updated rules are nothing to be worried about and aren’t designed to spoil anyone’s fun. However, with the ever increasing number of drones in the skies and incidents involving drones on the up, it’s important to have clear rules in place to ensure the safety of other airspace users and the public. The Civil Aviation Authority [CAA] and NATS Holdings (formerly National Air Traffic Services) have developed a website, which is an excellent up-to-date resource with information and guidance for drone users. Make sure you check it out before you fly.*
The Drone Code
The rules for recreational flyers in the UK have been summarised in the Drone Code a straightforward and easy to understand document. I’ll run through the key points below, along with the new changes that came into effect on July 30th 2018, plus a few useful tips to help you comply.
- You are responsible for each flight: The number one most important thing to remember is that you, the pilot, are legally responsible for the safe operation of your drone and must not endanger any other aircraft, person or property while flying it. Failure to do so could result in criminal prosecution.
- Always keep your drone in sight so you can see and avoid other things while flying: This is common sense really. Keep a clear line of sight at all times, and avoid having tall objects such as trees and structures between you and the drone. Always keep an eye out for what’s happening in the airspace around you and on the ground beneath your flight path too. Most drones have an option to set a maximum flying distance from the take-off point, which is useful for keeping the aircraft safely within sight.
- Every time you fly your drone you must follow the manufacturer’s instructions: Many new drones are packed with clever features, but it’s easy to get caught out. It is well worth spending some time at home, familiarising yourself with your drone’s control app, features and flight modes before flying for the first time. This could avoid an expensive mistake! Some drones have a training mode to help you get used to the controls and prevent the device from flying too far away from you. Writing a simple pre-flight checklist could also be useful. It’s all too easy to forget to check a flight setting or leave that crucial smartphone cable at home.
- Keep the right distance from people and property: You’ll need to fly at least 50m (nearly 165ft) from both people and properties, and 150m (nearly 500ft) from crowds and built-up areas. Check where you plan to fly to avoid breaching these distances and to be aware of any local airspace restrictions or sensitivities. The NATS Drone Assist app is a quick and easy way to do this, while SkyDemon Light and Google Maps/Earth are also useful planning tools.
- Fly below 400ft (about 120m) to reduce the risk of conflict with manned aircraft: From July 30th 2018 it will be illegal to fly a drone above this height. To make this easier you can usually set a maximum altitude or height in your control app’s settings before takeoff. It’s worth noting that some smaller drones may not be visible from the ground at this height so fly lower to keep the drone in sight.
- Stay well away from aircraft, airports and airfields: From July 30th 2018 it will be against the law to fly a drone within 1km of an airport or airfield boundary. If your drone endangers the safety of an aircraft it is a criminal offence and you could go to prison for up to five years. So, always check the area you intend to fly in using the Drone Assist app or one of the other methods previously mentioned. DJI drones have a built-in geo-fencing system, which either warns the operator or prevents the drone from taking off in restricted airspace zones. For more information on this feature visit DJI Fly Safe.
As you can see, the rules are pretty clear and straightforward to follow. With a bit of flight planning, taking advantage of the suggested apps and using some common sense, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t make the most of the summer weather and enjoy using your drone. Just be aware that these rules only apply to the UK. If you decide to take your drone abroad, double-check your destination’s drone legislation before you leave. Some countries have very strict rules on drone use, and you could have equipment confiscated or face a hefty fine.
Monitor the weather
Weather conditions aren’t listed in the Drone Code, but are another important factor to consider before you fly. Wind, in particular, can have a huge effect on small drones. Be aware that wind speeds at height are significantly greater than at ground level, so gusty conditions are best avoided. Your drone manual will have details of maximum wind speeds for safe flight. Use a free weather app such as the Met Office Weather Forecast or UAV Forecast so you can easily check the conditions of your flying location in advance.
We’ve covered the bases for recreational flying, but if you want to take things further and earn money from flying your drone, there are a few important steps you need to take. In the UK, you must obtain a Permission for Commercial Operations [PfCO], which is a certificate granted by the CAA. Essentially, this proves you have met the required standards to legally operate a drone on a commercial basis – subject to specific limitations set out in the Air Navigation Order 2016.
Several types of PfCO exist, depending on the type of flying you intend to do and the weight category of your drone. There are several stages to gaining a PfCO and a good place to start is to contact an approved assessment organisation. They can guide you through the process, help you develop an operations manual and check you meet the necessary requirements. You can find out more on the CAA’s website, including a list of approved assessment organisations.
*This article is intended to summarise important points regarding new UK drone laws. However, we strongly recommend that you read the Drone Code and familiarise yourself with all UK drone legislation before flying.
About the Author
Darren Giles is an experienced drone operator, and regularly freelances for creative agencies and production teams to deliver high-quality aerials. He has a strong background in corporate video and now runs Ten4 Production Services Ltd offering a wide range of video, aerial and event production solutions to agencies, corporates and small enterprises. Follow @Ten4_Ltd.