A Guide to Drone Laws for Commercial and Amateur UAV Pilots

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DJI Inspire 1The usage of UAVs, more commonly referred to as drones, has dramatically increased in recent years, both in the form of amateur users and various commercial applications.

Due to this growth in popularity, the truth is that drones flown by untrained, casual users may occasionally endanger the general public and other aircraft. Currently, there are few established operating guidelines leaving many operators unaware of potential risks and the responsibility they have to avoid collisions.

To put it simply, anybody piloting a drone, either recreationally or commercially, has to take full responsibility for ensuring that they do so safely.

At present, there are no recognised Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) licenses in aviation law. However, to ensure safety, it’s essential that pilots of any aircraft have a basic understanding of existing guidelines, especially the Air Navigation Order and Rules of the Air Regulations.

Consequently, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) requires aspiring drone users to demonstrate pilot competence before commercial operating permissions are issued.

The most popular way is to take a course which outlines essential skills and knowledge and ends with a ground exam and flight test. While the CAA doesn’t run these courses directly, it does approve commercial National Qualified Entities like Heliguy to lead the training and assessment on their behalf.

The Golden Rules

A collection of guidelines governing how to responsibly fly drones in the UK has been drawn up by the CAA. Known as the ‘Dronecode’, it states that UAVs must:

  • Be visible at all times
  • Remain below 400ft
  • Not be flown over congested areas

In addition, when a drone is fitted with a camera, they recommend that:

  • They should not be flown within 50m of people, vehicles or buildings
  • Pilots must also be mindful of privacy when taking pictures
  • Those using a drone to make money, e.g. for aerial photography, must get permission from the CAA and complete a training programme to demonstrate their competence with the craft

Civil Aviation Authority Permissions

Currently you must obtain CAA permission if any of the following apply:

You intend to operate a drone which is 20-150kg

This requires approval from the CAA (including any exemptions from the ANO). You must also submit an operating safety case (describing the drone, and your planned operations) to demonstrate it will be safe enough.

You are going to make money from using the drone

An Operations Manual is required outlining your operation and any relevant processes or procedures. You must also demonstrate the appropriate level of pilot competence through theoretical knowledge and flying skills.

Commercial drone operators in the UK also need to observe Regulation EC785/2004 on Insurance Requirements for Air Carriers and Aircraft Operators.

You are seeking to use your drone’s camera in public

If you are looking to film or take pictures using your drone’s camera, permission is required if you’re flying within 150m of a congested area or an organised open-air event of 1,000+ people. This is also true of flying within 50m of any structure or person (reduced to 30m during take-off and landing).

Data Protection

Unlike the radio controlled models which used to be flown by enthusiasts for many years, modern drones are much more likely to be kitted out with high quality cameras. This ability to capture images means that operators have a responsibility to respect the privacy of others.

Essentially, if a drone has a camera and records images of people, the pilot needs to comply with the Data Protection Act (DPA). The DPA ensures that data is collected and used lawfully, and for the reasons initially stated.
Under these rules it’s also essential to confirm that no data is captured needlessly or held for longer than is necessary.

UK Government Sponsor Drone Study

From December 2015 to February 2016, a study of public attitudes towards drones was carried out by TNS BMRB, an independent social research company. Sponsored by the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Defence and Sciencewise, the process aimed to implement the public’s views in future decision making concerning regulation.


The study showed that people were reassured by the quality of larger drones as well as the in-built safety features and existing regulations. Specifically, rules about line of sight, multiple people being involved in flights and notification of the public for planned flights proved to be popular. There was a clear sense of trust in the regulations, with people labelling them as common sense and a sensible measure to ensure safe usage.

However, it’s not all good news.

With (often sensationalist) news stories detailing drones used to spy on both celebrities and private citizens, it’s no shock that serious concerns over privacy have been raised. The study showed that the respondents were more concerned by hobbyists than licensed commercial users, as they feel reassured by the permission process for commercial applications of UAVs.

There are also worries about anonymity and traceability affecting authorities’ capacity to enforce these rules. Unsurprisingly, this has led to calls for a national register. But this raises another issue in itself, that many people have a lack of awareness of how to report issues with, or misuse of, drones.

The greatest concern stems from the frequent near-misses reported around UK airports. With a recent suspected drone collision at Heathrow reopening the discussion on a nation-wide level, it will certainly be interesting to see the next steps taken by the CAA.


From the aforementioned results, a number of suggestions have emerged. While these are bound to be divisive within the drone community, they’re worth looking at as a snapshot of where the UK public’s opinion on UAV regulation currently stands.

Here are the top ten issues that people want addressed:

  • Strictly enforced minimum safety standards
  • Safety leaflets provided as standard
  • A compulsory national register of pilots to increase accountability and traceability
  • Safety training and guidance linked to an online registration system.
  • Discounted lessons to be offered to those purchasing a drone
  • Increasing the amount and availability of flying clubs to help train users
  • Greater awareness of how to report incidents
  • A method of identifying drone owners at the incident site
  • Clearer guidelines on public liability insurance
  • Websites and apps which provide localised information about drones

Looking Forward

Whatever your views on drones are, the coming months are set to be an interesting time both in the UK and worldwide as governments and regulatory bodies increasingly set their sights on UAVs and their users.
As a Nationally Qualified Entity as recognised by the CAA, Heliguy pride ourselves on playing an active role in the current discussion on drone regulation. We’re a supplier, builder and training provider, with years of industry experience. Visit our website to find out more.

The above contribution is a guest post by heliguy.com

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