What you should know before flying a drone in the UK

Drones used to be scary, specialist equipment reserved for the military and dystopian sci-fi novels. But now they're everywhere. Companies have worked out how to make these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) cheap and reasonably easy to fly, enticing a whole new wave of amateur pilots. Whether you want to use one for photography or filming purposes, or simply to master the art of flight, it's never been easier to have a go.

The rapid rise in drone ownership has left many governments scrambling to work out how, if at all, these lightweight aircraft should be regulated. The rules and restrictions vary around the world, so it's always a good idea to familiarise yourself before launching a drone somewhere new. Keen to start flying in the UK? Here's everything you should know first.

Do I need a permit?

Drones are currently regulated by the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and split up into three different weight categories: 20kg or less, 20kg to 150kg, and above 150kg. For the lightest tier, you don't need a certificate or permit to start flying your drone. The only exception is for "aerial work," which refers to any flights where you (the pilot) is paid.

If your drone weighs 20kg or more, you'll need a permit from the CAA first. However, most hobbyist consumer drones -- be they toys or serious enthusiast models -- are significantly lighter than this, so even if you're attaching heavy camera gear you're unlikely to hit this higher weight bracket. To give just a few examples:

DJI S1000+: 4.4kg

DJI Phantom 2 Vision+: 1.2kg

Parrot AR Drone 2.0: 0.4kg

Blade 350 QX2: 1kg

Where can I fly my drone?

For all of these lighter drones, the CAA has outlined a few scenarios where it's not acceptable to take to the air. Some are fairly niche, while others are just plain obvious, but it's worth knowing about them so you're never caught red-faced by the authorities:

You can't fly your drone recklessly. Or negligently, or in any way that might endanger a person or property. It might sound obvious, but it's worth bearing in mind when you hand the controls over to your less-than-trustworthy housemate in the back garden. Any reckless, malicious or negligent flying could also break a number of traditional criminal offences normally handled by the police. Depending on the infringement, officers have the power to arrest you, or seize your drone as evidence and possibly prosecution. The Metropolitan Police, for instance, works alongside the CAA to tackle drone misuse.

You can't drop anything from your drone that might put someone in danger. So maybe hold back on those flyby water bombs. You should only fly a drone if there's a reasonable expectation the flight can be completed safely. Again, this might sound obvious, but it means being realistic about what's possible, especially in regards to your own flying skills.

You have to keep direct, unaided visual contact with your drone at all times. The CAA prescribes this as up to 400 feet (122 metres) vertically and 500 metres horizontally. Otherwise, you might not have the ability to avoid potential collisions. To go beyond these distances, you'll first need approval from the CAA. This requirement also rules out drone deliveries, at least until adequate 'detect and avoid' systems are approved in the UK.

The CAA has, however, published a small exemption for drone pilots using First Person View (FPV) systems. The extra guidance means that you don't need to keep direct, unaided visual contact at all times, provided you have someone else with you that can. Your drone must also weigh less than 3.5kg and you can't fly it higher than 1,000 feet (305 metres) from the ground. In addition, the rules set out below in our "What about if I'm filming" section then also apply, whether or not your drone has a camera on board.

You can't fly a drone in restricted airspace. Or near an Aerodrome Traffic Zone (ATZ), unless you've been given permission beforehand. If you're in a quiet, secluded space this probably won't be a problem, but if you're ever unsure it's always best to ask first.

What about if I'm filming?

If you're planning to fly your drone for filming or photography purposes, the CAA has some additional rules that you need to comply with:

For take-off and landing, your drone can't be closer than 30 metres to another person. This rule doesn't apply to you (the pilot) and anyone under your control -- in short, this exempts people that are aware of what you're doing and will listen to instructions.

While in the air, you can't fly your drone within 50 metres of another person, vehicle or structure that's not under your control. That's a considerable distance to maintain-- roughly five double-decker buses parked one in front of the other.

You can't fly within 150 metres of a congested area or a large group (1,000+) of people. This includes music concerts, festivals and large sporting events, as well as densely populated urban areas. Simply flying high isn't an option either -- as we mentioned earlier, your drone can't be higher than 400 feet (122 metres) from the ground at all times.

How about privacy laws?

If you're capturing videos or photos with your drone, those images will likely fall under the UK's Data Protection Act (DPA). The legislation includes a list of principles that apply to any collection of personal information, including drone footage. Unfortunately, none of them refer to UAVs directly, so working out what's applicable can be tricky. To help you out, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has published some tips to help you stay on the right side of the law and respect people's privacy. Here are the most important ones:

While filming, be honest and fair with people. It's a fairly broad principle of the DPA, but essentially it means you need to be up front with anyone who might appear in your shots. Wherever possible, you should notify bystanders before you start recording, especially if they're going to be identifiable in the final footage. It's not always easy to alert people though, so you might want to consider some kind of special clothing (the equivalent of a press badge or hi-vis jacket) or signage if you're shooting in a specific area.

Think about where you're shooting and the capabilities of your camera. If you're hovering in someone's back garden with a huge zoom lens, you're asking for trouble.

You should be able to switch your drone's camera on and off remotely. This means you'll be less likely to capture someone by mistake who doesn't want to appear in your video or photos. Doing so will also minimise the amount of data you need to keep secure.

Any data you collect needs to be stored safely. The images and videos you shoot are your responsibility, so the ICO recommends using encryption to keep them secure. Likewise, if you don't need the footage any more, it's best to just delete it.

The DPA also includes an exemption (section 32) for journalism, literary and artistic works. It's not a blanket protection, however, and comes with some additional criteria -- the footage must be intended for publication and be in the public interest, for instance. You must also "reasonably believe" that the very nature of your work makes it "incompatible" with the rules set out in the DPA. If someone were to ever file a case against you (a worst case scenario, of course) the ICO would judge your eligibility for themselves.

Want to know more?

To review the CAA's guidance for yourself, there are two documents you should check out: CAP 722, which outlines some basic guidance for using drones in the UK, and CAP 393, which covers the Air Navigation Order (ANO) 2009. For the latter, your starting point is Article 253 -- subsection three will direct you to the additional articles which apply to drones. For the DPA, this beginner's guide by the ICO is a good starting point, before moving on to the CCTV Code of Practice (page 29, section 7.3).

Otherwise, it's a matter of flying sensibly. The regulations in the UK are actually quite light, but if you're flying recklessly or disrespecting people's privacy, you'll no doubt find yourself in trouble sooner or later. Of course, if you're ever unsure about a particular place or the rules regarding both drone usage and filming -- it's always best to ask someone first.

[Image credits; Lima Pix, Flickr (header image), Andrew Turner, Flickr (first image in main body) Stefan Schubert, Flickr (second image in main body) Don Mcullough, Flickr (third image in main body) Gabriel Garcia Marengo, Flickr (final image in main body)]