As Christmas fast approaches, I expect that loads of Santa wishlists', from writers big and small, now include a drone. The U.S. alone is expecting sales of over 1 million over the holidays - and the trend will likely be similar here in the UK.
So now is probably the perfect time to explain the rules, regulations and guidelines surrounding drones, and how to fly them legally and safely in the UK.
Here's what you can and can't, and should and shouldn't do when flying your <7kg drone (quadcopter, RPAS, UAV, SUSA etc.) in the UK - and why.
- Don't fly within 50m of any person, vehicle, or building not under your control.
Don't fly too close to property or people that don't know what you're doing. This is much more for safety than privacy. If suddenly a rotor fails, or battery dies, you want to make sure you don't crash into someone or something that you can do serious damage to. This rule is reduced to 30m when taking off and landing.
- Don't fly over or within 150m of any crowd of 1000+ people.
As soon as that crowd ticks over from 999 people, it is now deemed impossible to 'control' that many people. Again, if you're out of control, you want to make sure you only hit the ground when you come down.
- Don't fly over or within 150m of any congested area.
A 'congested area' is any residential, commercial, recreational or industrial location - including roads and your quiet neighbourhood. Pretty much any area that makes it difficult to avoid breaking rule 1, and dangerous to make an emergency landing, is a no fly zone.
- Don't take off or land anywhere you don't have the landowners permission.
Not only is this rude, it's simply against the law.
- Don't lose sight of the drone, or fly more than 500m laterally away from you.
Just don't do this. If a malfunction occurs, or you lose connection without a return-to-home failsafe, or even enough battery to get back, you're in trouble. Good luck flying a drone safely back to you when its too small or difficult to see. This should be unaided too, so no binoculars!
- Don't fly higher than 400ft (122m).
This is where Class G airspace, our playground, ends - and where manned aircraft soon starts. You don't want to be the first jackass to impact a helicopter or plane, do you? Rule 5 applies here too - any higher and it gets harder to see your drone. And don't just watch your drone, keep an eye out for anything that may fly into it. It's almost impossible for a pilot to see your small drone in time to evade it - it's your job to be out of harms way.
- Don't fly within 5 miles of an airport, without permission from the ATC tower.
Seriously, don't be that guy. You'd just be fuelling the media firestorm by risking a collision. I guarantee your shots won't look that cool, compared to the risk involved.
- Don't be a nuisance.
You may think you're helping emergency services or the local news by filming a fire, but you could just be really irritating or actually doing harm by getting in the way - as some Californian operators found earlier this year. Simply, just don't fly close to anyone or anything you don't have the active cooperation of.
- Don't get distracted.
This is the quickest way to lose sight of your drone, and possibly crash it. A spotter is advisable, especially on flights where you're concentrating on framing your shot. They can watch the drone, and handle any distracting guests until you're in control or back on the ground.
- Don't fly for money or 'valuable consideration'.
At least not without Permission for Aerial Work (PfAW) from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).. You shouldn't be accepting 'work' with your drone, where you or somebody gains something from your flight, without appropriate training. This is to make sure everyone is safe, and that you are insured!
Okay, that's a lot of don'ts. I bet you're thinking there's absolutely nothing you can do now right? I remember thinking the exact same way. All that changed once I realised that its all just about managing risk, getting the right permissions, and is all for safety anyway - for people and your drone!
Most of these rules aren't absolute either. You can apply to the CAA for exemption if you can explain why you need to break a rule, and how you plan to mitigate any risks. You'll probably need a PfAW at the very least.
That's the hard part done! Just keep them all in mind and have fun. Now enjoy the do's...
- Do have fun!
Let's face it, drones are awesome and heaps of fun to fly.
- Do a flight plan, and check the weather & NOTAMs!
Before you fly, have a decent idea about what you plan to achieve, and how to mitigate any risks. It doesn't have to be anything formal. It just helps you be prepared, and maximises your productive battery time. You should at least check the weather forecast, so you don't get caught in strong winds or rain while flying. And please check for NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) in the area you plan to fly, so you don't interfere with someone's reserved airspace! You can check here.
- Do get some training!
Even if you don't plan on making money from your drone, I recommend the training. The 3 day course opened my eyes immensely, and completely cleared up my understanding of the regulations and how to fly safely. I think if you can afford it, do it. Too much knowledge is never a bad thing.
- Do solve problems and create new markets!
Get your Permission for Aerial Work and carve out a niche! It's so exciting seeing the development and power of drones in new industries. As well as take pretty pictures, drones can now 3D map disaster zones, stadiums or neighbourhoods in a matter of minutes, pinpoint crop disease, or deliver medication to hard-to-reach places.
- Do help emergency services, with their permission!
An aerial perspective can be a tremendous help in search-and-rescue missions for example. If you have permission, I encourage you to use your drone for good! Just remember to watch out for police helicopters etc.
- Do fly safe!
Sorry to sneak this one in again. Just remember it's probably at least a kilogram of solid plastic, metal and spinning blades, just hanging in the air at the mercy of gravity. Use your common sense, follow the rules above, and enjoy your drone!
- Do take some amazing pictures!
You have the power to see the world from perspectives that have probably never before been seen by humans. That's awesome! So record it and show the rest of us.
- Do explore!
Take the opportunity to visit places and meet people that you never would have done otherwise. A new community and world of possibilities await you and your drone!
I told you it wasn't all bad!
If this summary wasn't enough, you can read the CAP722 "Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in the UK", in all its glorious detail by clicking here.
I personally take pride in operating safely and legally- and that requires knowing and practising all of the above, on every flight.
If you have any questions, drop them in the comments below and I'll do my best to answer them. Happy flying!