Drone law in UK
Got a new drone or thinking of taking it abroad? Here’s where you’re allowed to fly it in the UK and other countries on holiday. Here we explain the dronecode and the drone law you need to follow for safe flying.
Drones are so popular now that there’s a UK dronecode – a simple set of rules to let you know where you can and can’t fly one. We’ll also list places where you’re not allowed to fly – such as the Royal Parks – and explain the equivalent rules in other countries in case you want to take your drone on holiday to capture some great aerial video.
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)
- Make sure your drone is within 500m from you horizontally
- 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 into trouble. 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.
See also: How to fly a drone, a beginner’s guide
First, let us say that 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.
You may well be able to fly in your local park, 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, Clapham Common and more.
Update: Previously we included Wimbledon Common in the list of places to fly but this was incorrect. It is not permitted to fly on Wimbledon or Putney Commons.
Helpfully, there’s a new app, the NATS Drone Assist, which is available for Android and iOS. Unfortunately, this requires you to sign up for an account with an email address and phone number, rather than being a simple map overlay. As well as restricted airspace, the app displays ground ‘hazards’ such as powerlines, railway lines, schools, petrol stations and other areas where you should be cautious of flying. It also shows areas, such as parks, where you must be careful of flying near people congregating.
Assuming you’re satisfied that it’s ok to fly somewhere, you must still obey the minimum and maximum distance rules of the Dronecode.
UK drone law: Do I need a permit or to register my drone?
No, you don’t need to register your personal drone or get a permit for a recreational drone in the UK. If you’re planning to use your drone for paid work, however, that’s a different story, and you will need Permission for Aerial Work, which has to be renewed annually. You can find out more on the CAA’s website.
The law may be different in other countries. Sweden, for example, now requires drone owners to acquire a permit before flying – as the government deems the drones ‘surveillance devices’, even if they don’t have a camera installed.
Update December 2016: The UK government is proposing to change the regulations so that any recreational drone weighing more than 250 grams has to be registered. Ministers also want drones to be ‘electronically identifiable’ on the ground so their owners can be tracked. They are also proposing increases to the maximum fine for flying a a no-fly zone, which is currently limited to £2,500. Should the law change following these proposals, we’ll update this article.
UK drone law: Safety and insurance
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 don’t have to have drone insurance by law, but it’s a good idea. It costs around £35 per year and there are lots of providers (just search drone insurance UK). These will give you personal public liability insurance which will protect you against claims if you crash into and damage someone’s property or injure someone with your drone.
Also note that 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: 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
The rules below were correct in December 2016, and are just a summary, not an exhaustive list of all regulations. Aside from a few specifics, they are much the same as the UK. In general, be sensible and don’t fly over groups of people, over cities or near airports. As long as you don’t endanger people, buildings or vehicles, you should be ok. But always check the latest regulations before you fly.
- Keep the drone in your line of sight and below 500ft at all times
- Maintain a safe distance from people and vehicles and never fly over crowds
- Don’t fly near to airfields, ensure you are at least 5km away (15km for larger sites)
- No flying over ‘strategic sites’ such a power plants, national monuments or military bases without receiving prior permission
- Do not fly your drone at night
- Don’t use the drone’s camera to record people or vehicles without permission and never store or distribute footage without the subject’s explicit agreement
- Keep the drone within sight of the pilot, (200-300m). Some areas restrict the height of such flights to between 30 and 100m, so check with local authorities.
- Don’t fly within 1.5km of airports
- The government district in Berlin is a no-fly zone
- Drones under 5kg have are exempt from specific legal aviation requirements
- You need permission to fly above military installations, power plants, industrial zones, accident scenes and large crowds
- Keep the drone in your line of sight and below 120m (400ft) at all times
- Don’t fly over groups of people at parks, beaches, concerts, processions, crowds etc
- Don’t fly near to airfields or aerodromes
- No flying over urban zones, such as cities
- Do not fly at night
Here’s a helpful map of Spain’s no-fly zones
- Fly below 230ft
- Keep the drone within 490ft horizontally
- You may not fly your drone over densely populated areas, crowds, beaches, national parks, railways, roads or industrial plants
- Fly at least 8km away from aerodromes
- Do not fly at night
- You must fly at least 50m away from people or property
- You must have third party insurance
- Do not carry dangerous goods on your drone
For more countries, see Heliguy’s global guide.