The Do's And Don'ts Of Flying Drones
It’s no surprise that drone flying is a popular new hobby. It combines all the fun of flying a remote control aeroplane or helicopter with the photographic power of the latest cameras. But before you start up those quad rotors and take to the skies, it’s important to know just how to fly a drone. We’re not talking about technique here, we’re talking about the law.
A number of high-profile cases of unsafe drone flying, like the mysterious drone flights that shut down Gatwick airport in 2018, caused UK lawmakers to draft new laws around how drones can be operated. These came into force in December 2020, and changed how you can fly your drone without breaking the law.
Laws can be complicated, and this one is no different. So, if you’re wondering how and where you can legally fly your drone in 2021, keep reading this blog! We’ll break down the new drone regulations into a series of quick “dos and don'ts” that are free from legalese.
Before we get started on the advice, a little note: The drone laws we’ll be referencing in this blog post apply only to UK drone owners. A lot of the advice around how to fly a drone and where you can fly are good to follow even if they’re not legally required, but there may be additional laws in your country that we won’t mention here. You should absolutely consult local laws in your country before flying your drone for the first time.
Do: Register your drone and get a flyer ID
Before even thinking about where to fly your drone, you need to register it with the government. It doesn’t matter how you use your drone or where you fly it, registration is mandatory. The only exception is for drones that weigh less than 250g, but this exception only applies if the drone is obviously a child’s toy. If your drone weighs less than 250g but has a camera, you need to register it. The registration includes a serial number, which has to be labelled on the drone’s chassis. Registration costs £9 and you’ll have to pay another £9 annually to keep the registration.
As well as registering your drone, everyone who uses your drone must have their own flyer ID. To get one of these IDs, you need to pass an online theory test about safe flying and respecting people’s privacy. Getting a flyer’s ID doesn’t cost anything. You can sign up for registration and flyers ID at the Civil Aviation Authority's website. Here, you’ll find more information about the process and find information to help you pass the test.
Don’t: Fly blind
Making sure you can see your machine is probably the most obvious advice on how to fly a drone we could give, but it’s actually a legal requirement. To fly legally and safely, you must be able to see your drone without using a pair of binoculars, a telescope, or any electronic video equipment like the digital zoom on your smartphone. Wearing ordinary prescription glasses and contact lenses is fine.
Being able to see your drone at all times isn’t just important for legal reasons - it also keeps your unmanned aircraft safe from potentially ruinous accidents. The second you lose sight of your drone, you lose all sense of navigation. Essentially, it’s a one way ticket to a crash landing! While premium models are typically made out of more robust materials, no aircraft is immune to the knock-on effects of a nasty crash. One slip up, and that could be the end to your flying experience altogether.
Do: Remember the 50-50 rule
When flying your drone, it’s important to keep as far away from people as possible. The best way to keep everyone safe is to remember the 50-50 rule: You should always stay at least 50m above the ground and stay 50m away from people. If you fly higher than 50m, you should increase your distance from people accordingly. For example, if you climb to a height of 64m, you should stay 64m away from people.
Please note: The 50-50 rule is for flying under ideal conditions. If there’s a strong wind, rain, or vision-limiting fog, you should stay even further away from people on the ground.
Don’t: Fly near aeroplanes and airfields
One of the biggest hazards involved in unsafe drone flying is a collision with an aircraft. Even if your drone doesn’t actually hit a plane, merely flying close to one puts the pilots and passengers at risk. For that reason, staying away from aircraft is a key part of how to fly a drone safely. Endangering the safety of an aircraft is a serious criminal offence that can see you go to prison for up to five years, not to mention putting dozens of lives at risk.
Legally, this means that the maximum height your drone can fly to is 150m above the ground. Although this will keep your drone far away from most aeroplanes, some aircraft like ambulance helicopters fly below 150m. Always keep an ear out for the sound of a aeroplane’s engine or the whir of a helicopter’s rotor blades.
In addition to this, your drone must keep clear of airports, airfields and flight paths. There’s a restricted area around every airport and airfield in the UK, a cylinder with a radius of 2.5 nautical miles and a 5km rectangle that extends from the end of each runway. It’s illegal to fly within these restricted zones without permission from the airfield’s traffic control unit.
We can’t give you precise advice on avoiding aeroplane flight paths as each one is unique. However, the dronesafe website has a helpful interactive map that shows you the size and shape of each flight path in the UK.
Do: Avoid crowds and buildings
We know that you have to stay at least 50m away from small groups and individuals, but what about crowds or buildings? Here, drone laws are even stricter. You must keep your drone at least 150m away from residential, recreational, commercial and industrial areas. That covers pretty much every building you’re likely to fly near, so staying 150m away from buildings at all times is a good idea.
As for flying a drone near crowds, you can forget it. There’s no safe distance to fly a drone in this case, so if you see a large gathering of people, don’t take off. So, where can you fly your drone? Nowhere near a built-up area, that’s for sure! If you’re not quite sure what constitutes a residential, recreational, commercial, or industrial area, check out the Civil Aviation Authority website here.
Do: Check local hazards and restrictions
All of our advice so far on how to fly a drone can be applied all over the country, but there are some special situations where you might have to be even more cautious. A good example is during emergency incidents. If there’s a house fire or serious car crash near to your normal flying spot, taking to the air could interfere with the emergency services’ response. Sometimes flying may be suspended in an otherwise safe area during special events, like music festivals. Some local councils may have established byelaws that prohibit drone flying in certain locations.
If you want to be always up to date, you can install the Drone Assistant App on the Apple App Store or the Google Play store. This app, developed in partnership with the UK’s leading air traffic control body, sends out alerts and visual maps to your mobile devices, keeping you in the loop about what’s going on in your local airspace.
Those are our dos and don’ts for staying on the right side of the law when piloting your drone. Although we can give you some quality advice on how to fly a drone, we aren’t the final word on drone safety. For more information and up-to-date guidance on drone laws, check out your government’s aviation regulator. For the United Kingdom, that’s the Civil Aviation Authority. The Drone Safe website is another useful resource for information on safe drone flying, and its Drones Reunited service can help you track down your drone through its registration ID in case you lose it.
You can remember the drone code using the handy acronym ‘DRONE’ - how fitting! For reference, it goes a little like this:
Don’t fly near residential, recreational, commercial, or industrial areas
Remember to stay below 150m
Observe your drone at all times - don’t neglect the 50:50 rule
Never fly near airports, airfields, or aircraft
So, now you know a little more about the rules and regulations around drones, you can start browsing for your next unmanned aircraft and take to the skies safely! If this is your first foray into flying, check out our ultimate guide to buying a drone. Packed with even more information, as well as a few top choices to tempt you, it won’t be long before you’re enjoying a bird’s eye view of the world like never before. What are you waiting for?
Please note: the information in this blog is correct at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.