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UK drone flying restrictions given legal backing

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.

CAA drone safety targeted by DroneSafe.uk

Press release issued by the Civil Aviation Authority:

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• Research shows support for enhanced drone safety education
• CAA launches new DroneSafe.uk website in partnership with UK air traffic control body NATS and revised Dronecode
• Research shows drones expected to be a top Christmas present – read the Dronecode to be safe
• 91% of the public agreed that adherence to rules and guidelines important

With one month to go to Christmas the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has today issued a revised Dronecode to help millions getting a drone this year to fly safely and responsibly. The Dronecode, a simple set of rules and guidelines established in legislation which outline how to fly drones safely and within the law in the UK, is hosted on a new dedicated Dronesafe.uk website. All backed by wide range of leading aviation players, drone retailers and manufacturers and the Department for Transport.

The launch of the new Dronecode, follows an industry-first report into user behaviour, attitudes towards, and responsible use of drones; findings led to the new website and the revised and updated Dronecode.

Key findings of the report are:
• The public agree that drones can be used for ‘worthy’ causes:
o 61% state that drones would be useful for traffic monitoring and power line inspection
o 58% agree that drones would be useful for agriculture
o 56% state that drones would be useful for emergency health services
o 40% say that drones would be useful for donor organ transport
• 62% of drone owners state that ‘fun’ is the main reason for having a drone
• 69% of owners thought retailers were responsible for drone safety education at point of sale. 36% were made aware of the Dronecode when buying a drone

To demonstrate the need for a unified approach, the research, which was carried out in collaboration with strategic insight agency Opinium, identified that 91% of the public agreed that adherence to the Dronecode is important. 39% of drone users had so far heard of it since its launch in 2015.

Drone owners and those looking to purchase one should familiarise themselves with the CAA’s revised Dronecode, a simple set of rules around safe and responsible use:
• Don’t fly near airports or airfields
• Remember to stay below 400ft (120m) and at least 150ft (50m) away from buildings and people
• Observe your drone at all times
• Never fly near aircraft
• Enjoy responsibly

Adherence to the Dronecode will address initial public concern identified in the research and help the wider industries that can harness the power of drones for good to grow. These are certainly front of mind with high expectations among the public for agriculture, medical and healthcare use.

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Tim Johnson, Policy Director at the CAA said, “Consumer research on this scale into drone use has never been done before and there was a real need from the aviation and drone industries to find out more about this growing sector. The research shows that the public have understandable concerns about reported drone misuse to date, and demonstrate clearly why the current education programme is underway, backed by legal action when appropriate.

“Drones have significant potential and the new Dronecode, which forms the basis of establishing a responsible attitude toward drone flight amongst consumers, will help to protect the safety of the wider aviation industry. It will also help those expected to use drones to improve current operations, from farming to traffic, from healthcare to logistics. Ultimately, people must use their drones safely, and responsibly.”

The new Dronecode and the consumer research is available to download at www.dronesafe.uk, a new website created by the CAA and air traffic control body NATS, and supported by a range of key players in the drone and aviation industries and the Department for Transport.

Andrew Sage, at the air traffic control provider NATS, said: “Drones are an incredible, inspiring technology but it’s vital that people are using them safely. With the number of reported drone incidents on the rise, it’s important that people understand their legal obligations and fly safe, having fun whilst ensuring other users of the UK’s airspace aren’t put at risk. We hope that dronesafe.uk will help to achieve this.”

Oliver Meakin, CEO at Maplin added, “During the lead up to Christmas, a key time for drone purchases, we are working with the CAA and NATS to make sure that all of our drone buying customers are made aware of the new Dronecode and Drone Safe website, along with the importance of using their drone safely.”

The launch of the new Dronecode, report and Drone Safe website forms part of a wider initiative looking at establishing a safe and responsible attitude toward drone flight and usage to protect the safety of the wider aviation industry and the wider sector opportunities.

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This initiative saw the launch of 400ft Britain last month, a drone photography and videography competition that aims to creatively bring the Dronecode to life, held in partnership with VisitEngland and offering drone-flying holidays from Phantom Flight School to the winning entries.

The new Dronecode is for consumer drone use and those using a drone commercially must be licensed and undergo an approved course. Drone users must also remember that if they don’t follow the simple rules they could be prosecuted and go to prison.

ENDS