Timothy Pinto

Timothy Pinto

Senior Counsel

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Timothy Pinto

Timothy Pinto

Senior Counsel

Read More

19 August 2019

Drone SAFETY! The UK regulatory landscape

This is the second article in our five part series covering UK and EU drone regulation. You can read Part 1 here.

As mentioned in Part 1, the UK and EU have been legislating to improve drone safety. Here we discuss UK law, which is contained in the Air Navigation Order 2016 (as amended).

Endangering life

If the person(s) responsible for flying the drone(s) at Gatwick airport in December 2018 are caught, they might be accused of committing the offence of recklessly or negligently:

  • acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft, or any person in an aircraft (maximum penalty: 5 years' imprisonment and/or a fine)
  • causing or permitting an aircraft (including a drone) to endanger any person or property (maximum penalty: two years imprisonment and/or a fine).

There are specific rules for small drones (defined as small unmanned aircraft) which weigh no more than 20kg, including that a person must not cause or permit any article or animal to be dropped from a drone so as to endanger persons or property.

The operator and the pilot

UK law distinguishes between the operator of the drone and its pilot. The operator is the person who has the "management" of (ie is responsible for) the drone. This is usually the person who owns it. The pilot is the person who operates the flight controls. Often, the operator and pilot are the same person. The UK's Drone Safe website is useful, and sets out some of the basics.

Some prohibited acts are subject to exceptions if the operator and pilot have permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and/or relevant air traffic control (see here). Obtaining permission is often vital for the commercial use of drones.

The pilot:

  • May only fly the drone if reasonably satisfied that the flight can be safely made.
  • Must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the drone. This means that controlling the flight by looking at the images from the drone's camera – so using an AR/VR headset – is not allowed.

Some restrictions apply both to the operator (who must not permit the drone to be flown in a certain way) and the pilot (who must not fly it in that way). For example, drones must not be flown:

  • for commercial purposes
  • above 400 feet (120m)
  • inside the restricted zone of an aerodrome (airports, military airfields and smaller aviation airfields) – what constitutes a restricted zone changed in March 2019 (see here for more information).

Drones which collect data

There are also strict rules for drones which can collect data. This includes drones with cameras, which will apply to most drones. They must not be flown:

  • within 50m (30m for take off and landing) of any person apart from the pilot or a person under their control
  • above or within 150m of any congested area
  • above or within 150m of any organised assembly of over 1,000 people (eg a sports stadium)
  • within 50m of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the pilot.

This means that the operator and pilot of a 'surveillance' drone must keep it well away from other people, cars and buildings. It is likely that this rule will be breached by people flying their drone in the park or on the beach during the day and result in numerous complaints, eg to the police.

The government is proposing new police powers relating to the misuse of drones, as set out in the draft Drones Bill. Interestingly, unlike the EU drone rules, the UK rules do not say anything about drone use endangering animals.

Registration requirements for UK drone operators and pilots

From 30 November 2019, the operator of a drone which is between 250g and 20kg must not cause or permit the drone to be flown unless:

  • they have obtained a certificate of registration from the CAA
  • the operator's registration number is displayed on the drone
  • they reasonably believe that the pilot has obtained an acknowledgement of competency from the CAA.

To obtain a certificate of registration, the operator must be aged 18 years or over and pay the annual registration charge (which the CAA has proposed will be £16.50).

Also from 30 November 2019, a pilot must not fly a drone between 250g and 20kg unless the CAA has issued the pilot with an acknowledgment of competency. The online test will likely cover safety, security, privacy, data protection and the environment. There will be no lower age limit or fee to take the test. Pilots must not fly unless they have a reasonable belief that the operator has obtained a registration certificate and displayed the number on the drone.

Next time: PART 3 – How the EU is responding

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