Drone flying rules: Brush up on drone laws after Gatwick chaos

Drones are becoming increasingly popular, but with their rise comes a load of amplified risks, dangers and rules. This week saw Gatwick airport come to a standstill as drones were spotted flying over its airfields. The chaos left tens of thousands of passengers delayed, stranded or redirected – some as far afield as Paris or Amsterdam. 

The episode, now over, comes as a timely reminder of the stringent laws surrounding drone operation. We’ve mapped out those rules for you below – if you’re a drone flier or thinking of becoming one, make sure to brush up on the law. 

This summer saw the UK’s new “Drone Code” laws coming into place, with a ban on people flying drones above 120m and within 1km of an airport or airfield. The new laws came into effect on 30 July 2018, and saw legal responsibility put solely on the user of the drone. Anyone who endangers an aircraft will risk up to five years in prison. 

However, there are caveats: The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and airports will have the power to make exceptions to these restrictions in specific circumstances, although it has not thus far elaborated on what these circumstances might be. 

The new laws come hot on the heels of more than a little misbehaviour from drone users in recent years; The Evening Standard reports that earlier this month a drone came within a meagre six metres of crashing into a plane departing from Luton Airport in May. Meanwhile, back in July 2017, another drone was said to put “130 lives at risk” thanks to a near miss with a plane arriving at Gatwick. 

The recently enforced changes were first proposed as part of the draft Drones Bill consultation in November 2017, and form part of the Grand Challenge laid out in the Government’s recent Industrial Strategy and come off the back of a year-on-year increase in the report of drone incidents with aircraft. Also tacked onto the roster of imminent changes is the news that drone users in the UK will soon be forced to register their machines and sit online “driving tests” under new laws laid out by parliament.

Then, from 30 November 2019, owners of drones weighing 250 grams or more will have to register with the CAA, and drone pilots will need to take an online safety test “to ensure the UK’s skies are safe from irresponsible flyers”. That means the smaller toy drones will be exempt, but serious models like the DJI Phantom 4 will definitely be covered.

Meanwhile, the drone awareness tests will cover topics such as safety, security and privacy. It’s likely that the test will be administered online or through an app.

“Drones have great potential and we want to do everything possible to harness the benefits of this technology as it develops,” said aviation minister Baroness Sugg. “But if we are to realise the full potential of this incredibly exciting technology, we have to take steps to stop illegal use of these devices and address safety and privacy concerns.

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In addition to these measures, the draft Drones Bill will be published this summer (it was scheduled to go live in the spring) to give police more powers to intervene if drones are being used inappropriately. Drone owners will also eventually be required to use apps, so they can access the information needed to make sure any planned flight can be made safely and legally.

So, with all of this in mind, where can you fly your drone safely and legally? Read on to find out.

UK drone flying rules: New laws for 2018

UK drone flying rules: Keep clear of airports and airfields

The first step to figuring out where you can go is to find out the places that you can’t fly a drone and go from there. And the first big no-no is flying your drone anywhere near an airport. There are obvious safety reasons for this. You don’t want to be responsible for bringing down a passenger jet large or small, a helicopter or glider so steer well clear.

And remember: the rules cover not only large international airports such as Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted – which everyone should know about – but smaller airfields and military aerodromes as well. It can be difficult to know where these are since there are hundreds of them scattered across the countryside, so how do you check if you’re safe?


The best way to find out is either to use an Ordnance Survey map, where the exclusion zones surrounding an airport should be indicated or – even easier – refer to the NoFlyDrones.co.uk website, where you can browse a map detailing the exclusion areas around airports and airfields across the country. Usefully, the website also details other areas that small aircraft are banned from, such as the airspace surrounding nuclear power stations and prisons.

It should be pretty easy to avoid these banned areas. They’re easy to find out about and clearly marked on maps. However, you also need to be aware that the law instructs drone pilots to keep clear of people, vehicles and buildings by at least 50 metres, and congested areas and large gatherings of people by at least 150 metres.

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UK drone flying rules: Where can I fly my drone?

In some areas of the country, you can see why this might make it tricky to fly anywhere at all. In London and the surrounding areas, there are few areas that conform to the regulations, and there are people and vehicles everywhere you look.

So where on earth can you fly? Your best bet is to look for large areas of open ground such as parks, fields and conservation land. School fields and sports grounds are a good shout, too, although do check that it is okay to use them with an appropriate person beforehand.

Even with public parks it’s possible that council bylaws have already been introduced limiting where and when you can fly your new baby. All London’s Royal Parks, for instance, have banned the flying of drones due to terrorism fears. It’s wise, then, to check first for any extra restrictions your local council has in place covering drone flights and public parks.

A quick search for “park bylaws” on your council’s website should bring up the documents you need to consult. Also, be aware that with so much attention focused on the safety issues surrounding drones in the media, the attitude of any council officials you come across may well be to err on the side of caution and stop you flying. If this happens, stay calm and polite and move on.

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UK drone flying rules: Commercial restrictions and convictions

So far the rules I’ve discussed cover only recreational drone use. If you intend to enter the world of commercial drone photography using your new toy – for wedding photography or in fact anything else you (or the organisation you work for) profit from – bear in mind that you’ll need to obtain “operating permission” from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) beforehand.

This isn’t a pilot’s licence, technically speaking, but in order to obtain this permission, you need to “demonstrate the necessary skills and knowledge”. This is done by attending a course and passing an exam and flight test, run by a National Qualified Entity (NQE). Check here for a list of the NQEs operating such courses.

UK drone flying rules: All the rules you need to know about

The rules for flying small, recreational drones are set out in the Air Navigation Order 2009 (ANO) and comprise the following broad regulations:

  1. If you’re flying for work you must not fly your drone above an altitude of 400ft
  2. Your drone must always be under your control, within line of sight and within 500m horizontally
  3. You may not fly anywhere near an airport or airfield, or any other aircraft
  4. Don’t fly over congested areas such as streets, towns and cities
  5. If your drone has a camera, you can’t fly closer than 50m to people, vehicles or buildings, unless you have permission and all people and vehicles you’re flying near are under your control
  6. Drones are out of bounds within 150m of “an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons” according to the ANO

These may change, or be adapted when the Drones Bill is published later this year.

UK drone flying rules: Further reading and useful links

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