Drones are fast becoming a regular sight across the UK. With prices tumbling and quadcopters getting easier and easier to fly they make great gadgets and can capture spectacular aerial video. The ‘Dronecode’ aims to make the law on flying quadcopters easier to understand, and here we’ll explain what it means for you. See also: Best drones you can buy right now
Until their recent boom in popularity, drones were lumped in with ‘small unmanned aerial vehicles’ on the CAA's (civil aviation authority) website and you had to try to figure out which rules applied to modern quadcopters. Now, the site has a page dedicated to drones which outlines the most important rules. This is the basic Dronecode:
- Keep your drone within your line of sight and at a maximum height of 400ft (122m)
- Always fly your drone well away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields
- If fitted with a camera, a drone must be flown at last 50m away from a person, vehicle, building or structure not owned or controlled by the pilot.
- Camera-equipped drones must not be flown within 150m of a congested area or large group of people, such as a sporting event or concert
Many quadcopters, including DJI’s Phantom 4, are capable of flying much higher than the limit, so it’s easy to unwittingly break the law. The reason for choosing 400ft, according to the CAA, is because this is generally what is measured as the limit of normal, unaided sight. Horizontally, the limit on flying is 500m from you – considerably further than 400ft. In practice, it's easy to lose track of a drone at around 200-250m away from you. The important thing is to make sure you personally can see the drone you're controlling as you're responsible for it.
As long as you abide by these rules, you won’t get an earful from the local cops. There have only been a few cases so far of drone owners being prosecuted and they typically involve people blatantly flouting the rules. In one case, a drone was flown near to a nuclear submarine facility. In another case, a man repeatedly flew near stadiums and landmarks, and posted the footage to YouTube.
Flying in your back garden is usually a bad idea because of limited space and the potential for crashing, but your neighbours could also make a complaint – especially if your drone has an obvious camera.
The key rule, though is height. Recklessly endangering an aircraft in flight is a criminal offence in the UK, and anyone convicted of the charge can face a prison term. So if you live near an airport, make sure you’re flying low. Some drones (including DJI Phantoms) have the capacity to geo-fence restricted areas, such as airports. They can also use them for ‘beginner’ modes which limit the height and distance the quadcopter can fly away from you. However, most don’t so it’s up to you to ensure you fly it safely.
UK drone law: Can I fly in my local park?
You may well be able to, but always check before you fly. Some parks will have signage which explains what is and isn't permitted. You might see a 'no model aircraft' sign, which also includes drones. All eight of London's Royal Parks are no-drone zones, but you can still fly on many of the commons: Hampstead Heath, Blackheath, Wimbledon Common, Clapham Common and more.
If you are allowed to fly, you must still obey the minimum and maximum distance rules of the Dronecode.
UK drone law: Have a safe flight
The final part of the dronecode is to fly safely. Each flight is your responsibility, which means you are liable for any damage caused by your drone. It’s worth checking if your home insurance covers this and, if not, get a dedicated policy.
You can also take precautions such as these 7 pre-flight checks which you should do before letting your drone leave the ground.
UK drone law: First Person View & FPV racing
Since many drones have – or can be fitted with – a camera, it’s possible to buy an FPV kit and fly it using a live video stream from the camera. This is done from a video screen or special goggles, but presents a problem as you won’t have line of sight with the drone: you’re not looking directly at it.
To get around this, the FPV UK organisation worked to get an exemption for this type of drone flying and it’s legal as long as you have a ‘spotter’ who can keep the drone in their line of sight while you fly it. You can find out more at the FPVUK website