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UK drone flying restrictions given legal backing

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The new measures are designed to keep small drones and large manned aircraft well apart

Remotely flying a camera around in the sky, thanks to the affordability and sophistication of drones, is one of the newest and most exciting avenues for photography. You can buy a camera-equipped drone for well-under £100 and ones with decent photo quality start at £100-150. However, it’s not a free-for-all in the skies and concerns about safety are beginning to impact on even the hobbyist drone flyer.

New UK laws to keep drones safe and away from conventional aircraft

The UK government has announced new legal measures aimed at deterring drone operators from flying their aircraft irresponsibly. New laws will mean many hobbyist drone flyers will need to register their aircraft with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and take an online safety test. The main aim is to protect passenger aircraft in airspace near to airports and aerodromes. Statistics suggest there have been nearly a 100 near-misses in the UK alone last year.

Altitude and distance limits

The first of the new regulations to come into force will happen on 30th July. By default, it will be illegal to fly a drone above 400ft (120m) or closer than 1km (0.6 miles) to an airport or aerodrome. Prior to that date the 400ft altitude limit has only been a recommended best-practice limit, as stipulated by the CAA and NATS (UK air traffic control) backed Drone Code. Many low cost drones are capable of exceeding this limit easily.

A DJI Spark like this can be bought for as little as £300 and will happily sail past 120m (400ft) above you or fly out of visible sight.

In the words of the government press release; “Drone users who flout the new height and airport boundary restrictions could be charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or any person in an aircraft. This could result in an unlimited fine, up to five years in prison, or both.”

Safe and responsible drone flying – the Drone Code summarised:

  • Make sure you are familiar with the manufacturer’s instructions for the operation safe operation of your drone
  • Keep below 120m altitude
  • Keep well away from airports and airfields
  • Keep your drone in visual sight at all times
  • Keep a minimum 50m distance from people and properties you don’t have control over
  • Keep 150m away from any built-up areas or crowds
  • Be aware that you are responsible for the safe and responsible flight of your drone. You could be liable for criminal prosecution if you fly dangerously or irresponsibly

Drones heavier than 250g

Later, from 30th November, operators of any drone with a take-off weight of 250g or more will have to register their drone with the CAA and pass an online safety test. Most drones fitted with cameras capable of good quality stills and video photography exceed the 250g threshold. If you don’t comply with the registration and test requirement you risk a £1,000 fine. It’s not yet clear if the online test will carry a fee or not. Currently, drones exceeding 20kg require licensing and must only be flown by people licensed to be qualified operators.

Zerotech’s Dobby is a rare example of a drone with a competent camera built in, totalling less than 250g

The new regulations are being brought into law through an amendment to the Air Navigation Order (2016). A quick perusal of social media sites specialising in drone discussion reveals a split in reaction to the news. Some drone flyers whose main interest is flying as high and as far as possible are, naturally, disgruntled. But other drone enthusiasts believe the regulations were inevitable and many already stick within the limits to be enforced anyway and hope that their hobby, or even profession as commercial drone operators, will be protected from bad publicity generated by irresponsible drone flying. However, whether the new regulations can be enforced effectively is greeted with widespread cynicism. While more sophisticated drones equipped with GPS positioning receivers usually record a log of their flightpath, containing valuable evidential information, other large and powerful drones don’t.

Airline pilots say measures don’t go far enough, literally

While the changes are designed to protect passengers and pilots flying big planes, the pilots trades union, the British Airlines Pilots Association (BALPA), has been critical of the 1km airport boundary, saying it should be more like 5km. Apparently, an airliner could quite legitimately be well under 400ft 1km from the runway.

Because the drone industry, both for recreational and commercial flying, is estimated to be worth over £40 billion by 2030, the government stresses that it does not intend to hinder the responsible operation of drones.

Taking your drone abroad to fly is now increasingly common but there are no internationally agreed drone flying rules. Nevertheless, the same 250g weight threshold and 120m altitude limit do seem to be mentioned frequently in local regulations around the world.


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