UK Drone Laws 2019: Everything you need to know
Drones have gone from niche geek gadget to High Street mainstay over the last few of years, but as they’ve grown more popular we’ve also seen year-on-year increases in disruptive and potentially dangerous incidents allegedly involving them. To ensure the safety of both drone users and the general public, UK drone laws keep having to evolve, but the frequent changes make it difficult to know what you can and can’t do with the flying bots.
Our guide covers where you can and can’t fly a drone in the UK, sheds light on drone registration requirements, and casts an eye forward to the future.
Before you fire up your shiny new plaything, catch up with all the new UK drone laws so you can go forth and fly with confidence. And if you’re looking to pick up a shiny new flying bot, be sure to check out our roundup of the best drones.
If you’re planning to use a drone for commercial work rather than leisure, check out the CAA’s guide.
UK Drone Laws: The latest updates
Drone users in the UK have until the end of November to register as a drone operator with the CAA, and pass an online theory test. Failure to do so could result in a £1000 fine.
However, exemptions have been made for members of ARPAS-UK, the British Model Flying Association, Scottish Aeromodellers’ Association, Large Model Association and FPV UK. In these cases, the associations themselves will collect the registration fee from members and supply their data to the CAA.
If you aren’t a member of any of those associations, and you use a drone that weighs 250g or more, registration is mandatory. However, you have to be 18 or older.
Registration cost £9 per year, and you can complete the process here. Once you’ve registered, you’ll receive an operator ID and a certificate of registration. You must display your operator ID on your drone, and you can use the same operator ID for multiple drones.
You’ll also need to take − and, of course, pass − a free online theory test on flying safely and legally, in order to get a Flyer ID.
The test comprises 20 multiple choice questions, and you need 16 correct answers in order to pass. You can swot up by reading the Drone and Model Aircraft Code, but don’t worry if don’t pass at the first time of asking − you can take the test as many times as you need. You can prepare for the test here.
Once you’ve registered and passed the test, you’ll receive a unique code that you must apply to your drone, and you’ll also gain access to Drones Reunited, a new service that’s designed to make it easier to find a lost drone.
According to the CAA, 36% of 18-34-year olds have lost a drone, as have 20% of drone users aged 35 and above.
“To take advantage of the service anyone losing a drone must post their details to the Drones Reunited site, while anyone who finds a drone will be encouraged to check the device for a registration number, reporting this to the platform,” the CAA has explained.
“The CAA will then be on hand to act to help ensure drones are returned to their rightful owners.”
Bigger restriction zones
The government is currently in the process of preparing a new Drones Bill, and in January 2019, it revealed the outcome of a public consultation that ran from July 6 2018 to September 17 2018 and attracted 5061 responses. There are some significant UK drone law updates to be aware of if you wish to avoid fines and potential prison sentences.
Because of the disruption that was allegedly caused by drones at Gatwick and Heathrow airports in early 2019 and late 2018, the government decided to extend the area around airports and runways in which drones are banned from being flown. As of March 13 2019, it’s illegal to fly a drone within 5km of an airport − up from 1km previously.
“The new restriction zone will include an airport’s aerodrome traffic zone (ATZ) as well as 5km by 1km extensions from the end of runways to protect take-off and landing paths,” Baroness Sugg announced in February. “All drones will be restricted from flying within this zone unless appropriate permission is granted.”
Furthermore, the government said: “The new restriction zone will include rectangular extensions from the end of runways measuring 5km long by 1km wide to better protect take-off and landing paths.”
Extra police powers
Police are also going to be given extra powers in November. Officers will be able to “enter and/or search premises, with a warrant, where there is reasonable suspicion that there is a drone and/or its associated components which the police reasonably suspects of having been involved in the commission of an offence”.
They’ll also be able to issue fixed penalty notices (FPN) up to £100 for minor drone-related offences, “as a way to immediately and effectively enforce as a deterrent to offenders and to reduce pressure on Magistrates’ Courts”.
A drone user could be slapped with an FPN for committing any of the following offences:
- Not producing registration documentation, and/or proof of registration for drones between 250g and up to and including 20kg in mass, at the request of a police constable
- Not producing evidence of any other relevant permissions required by legislation, for example if you are a commercial drone operator or have an exemption from the CAA from an ANO 2016 article
- Not complying with a police officer when instructed to land a drone
- Flying a drone without a valid acknowledgement of competency, or failure to provide evidence of meeting this competency requirement when requested
We’ve also known for some time that the government is pushing for work on geofencing technology to be brought forward. The technology is built into drones themselves, and uses GPS coordinates to stop the devices from entering specific zones, such as the grounds of a prison or airport airspace.
“The Home Office will also begin to test and evaluate the safe use of a range of counter-drone technology in the UK,” is the government’s official line at present.
“This crucial technology will detect drones from flying around sensitive sites, including airports and prisons, and develop a range of options to respond to drones, helping to prevent a repeat of incidents such as that recently experienced at Gatwick.”
The DfT says it and the CAA are also working to increase public awareness of drone laws, and they’ve written airports and local authorities to “help to educate passengers and the public about responsible drone use”.
UK Drone Laws: What more can we expect?
As mentioned above, UK drone laws have been subject to regular changes, and plenty more tweaks could be made in the near future.
It was only as recently as July 30 2018 that the government made it illegal to fly a drone above 400ft or within 1km of airport boundaries. While the former remains in place, the latter was quickly deemed to be insufficient.
Anyone who flouts that 400ft rule could be charged with “recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or any person in an aircraft”, and face a fine of up to £2500 or up to five years in prison.
So what steps might the government take next?
It’s possible that drone users will one day be required to use a FINS − which would likely take the form of an app − to notify authorities and other drone users that they’re going to fly a UAV at a particular location at a given time ahead of time. Users may also have to pay for FINS access.
“The aim of this proposed policy is to increase drone user accountability, to ensure a flight can be made safely, without compromising the security or privacy of others. The real-time data and records made by a FINS could also be useful for enforcement,” last year’s public consultation explained.
The DfT says that drone operators will also eventually have to use apps that ensure they always have access to safety guidance, though it isn’t yet clear how it plans to enforce this rule.
Where can and can’t I fly my drone in the UK right now?
Seen some snazzy airborne footage on YouTube? Well, it might have been captured illegally as, according to UK laws regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority, consumer drones (classed as those that weigh under 20kg) must be flown no higher than 400 feet (120 metres), and be kept at least 50 metres away from people and private property, and 150 metres from congested areas and organised open-air assemblies of more than 1,000 people.
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You’re also required to keep your drone in your line of sight at all times, and be aware of designated “no fly zones”, which most notably include airports and prisons.
In addition, you need to register with the CAA if you’re planning to use your drone for “commercial purposes”. However, the definition of “commercial operations” is a little convoluted.
For instance, this doesn’t apply to you if you use a drone to shoot a video that you’ll monetise on YouTube if the content “was not commissioned by another party but was conceived and wholly funded by the poster”.
If, however, the content was “directly commissioned by another party for the purposes of display or marketing on their website”, you do need to register.
You can read up on the rules here.
According to the DfT, the number of active commercial licences increased from 2500 to 3800 in 2017, a year on year growth of 52%. In other words, flying your new drone isn’t quite as straightforward as you might think, especially if you live in an urban area or near an airport.
You can learn more over on the CAA-backed Drone Safe website, where the handy Drone Assist app is also available. We wish you many a safe and fun flight!