You'll be pleased to know that it's legal to fly a drone in the UK. Currently, you do not have to register a new drone, but the law will change in November 2019 and require that all drone operators will have to be registered.
And - naturally - you can't just fly wherever and however you like. There's a UK dronecode, a simple set of rules, to ensure you fly safely and legally. For the most part the rules are common sense. But with the police now having powers to ground drones if they're flouting the law, it pays to know the dronecode inside out before you take off.
We'll also explain the equivalent rules in certain other countries in case you want to take your drone on holiday to capture some great aerial video.
What is the UK law for drones?
The main change to the law, which came into effect on 30 July 2018 is that drones must be flown no higher than 400 feet / 120m. And they must not be flown within 1km of airports. The exclusion zone is set to change this year following incidents at Gatwick and Heathrow, forcing law-abiding operators to stay at least 2.5 nautical miles (4.63km) away.
The UK dronecode has always restricted drones to 400 feet, but the new rules are now enforceable by law and you can be prosecuted for flouting them.
Here are the six rules of the dronecode:
- Keep your drone in your line of sight
- Stay below 400ft (120m)
- You must follow the manufacturer's instructions
- Keep your distance (50m from people and property, 150m from crowds and built-up areas)
- You are responsible for each flight
- Keep at least 1km away from aircraft, airports and airfields (soon to be 4.63km and even further at runway ends)
The reason for choosing a height of 400 feet, according to the CAA, is because this is generally what is measured as the limit of normal, unaided sight.
Horizontally, the limit on flying is 500 metres from you – considerably further than 400ft. In practice, it's easy to lose track of a drone at around 200-250m away from you. The important thing is to make sure you can see the drone you're controlling as you're responsible for it.
As long as you abide by these rules and only fly in open spaces and parks where drones are allowed, you won’t get into trouble. There have been a few cases so far of drone owners being prosecuted and they typically involve people blatantly flouting the rules.
2019 law changes
On 7 January the UK government announced that police are being given new power to land, seize and search drones, and the homes of drone operators. Police will be able to issue on-the-spot fines of up to £100 for non-compliance. There's no set date for when the new laws come into effect, though.
Currently, the law states that if your drone recklessly or negligently endangers an aircraft it is a criminal offence and you could go to prison for up to five years.
Not yet, but the UK government is bringing in registration soon along with safety tests, in November 2019.
Previously it has said that any recreational drone weighing more than 250 grams (up to 20kg) will have to be registered, which includes DJI's Spark. And the operator's details will also be recorded, including name and address. It's also looking likely there will be an annual fee to pay when you register, and it'll be considerably more expensive than the few bucks that US owners have to pay.
If you're planning to use your drone for paid work you will need Permission for Aerial Work, which has to be renewed annually. You can find out more on the CAA's website.
The law may be different in other countries. Sweden, for example, now requires drone owners to acquire a permit before flying - as the government deems the drones 'surveillance devices', even if they don't have a camera installed. You also have to register drones with the FAA in the US.
Can my drone be identified in flight?
If you own a DJI drone that works with the DJI Go 4 app, you can voluntarily broadcast flight information (not personal information, though) which authorities could use to check if a flight is illegal or not. It's early days for the system, and there's no law which says you must enable it in the app (it's disabled by default).
However, most drones do not and cannot broadcast any such information.
Drone safety and insurance
The whole aim of the dronecode is to fly safely. Each flight is your responsibility, which means you are liable for any damage caused by your drone. It’s worth checking if your home insurance covers this and, if not, get a dedicated policy.
You don't have to have drone insurance by law, but it's a good idea. It costs around £35 per year and there are lots of providers (just search drone insurance UK). These will give you personal public liability insurance which will protect you against claims if you crash into and damage someone's property or injure someone with your drone.
You can also take precautions against failure such as these 7 pre-flight checks which you should do before letting your drone leave the ground.
Also note that recklessly endangering an aircraft in flight is a criminal offence in the UK, and anyone convicted of the charge can face a prison term. So if you live near an airport, make sure you’re flying low.
Some drones (including DJI Phantoms) have the capacity to geo-fence restricted areas, such as airports. They can also use them for ‘beginner’ modes which limit the height and distance the quadcopter can fly away from you. However, most don’t so it’s up to you to ensure you fly it safely.
First Person View & FPV racing
Since many drones have – or can be fitted with – a camera, it’s possible to buy an FPV kit and fly it using a live video stream from the camera. This is done from a video screen or special goggles, but presents a problem as you won’t have line of sight with the drone: you’re not looking directly at it.
To get around this, the FPV UK organisation worked to get an exemption for this type of drone flying and it’s legal as long as you have a ‘spotter’ who can keep the drone in their line of sight while you fly it. You can find out more at the FPVUK website
The rules below were correct at the time of writing and are just a summary, not an exhaustive list of all regulations. Aside from a few specifics, they are much the same as the UK. In general, be sensible and don't fly over groups of people, over cities or near airports. As long as you don't endanger people, buildings or vehicles, you should be ok. But always check the latest regulations and rules in local parks before you fly.
- Keep the drone in your line of sight and below 500ft at all times
- Maintain a safe distance from people and vehicles and never fly over crowds
- Don’t fly near to airfields, ensure you are at least 5km away (15km for larger sites)
- No flying over ‘strategic sites’ such a power plants, national monuments or military bases without receiving prior permission
- Do not fly your drone at night
- Don’t use the drone’s camera to record people or vehicles without permission and never store or distribute footage without the subject’s explicit agreement
- Keep the drone within sight of the pilot, (200-300m). Some areas restrict the height of such flights to between 30 and 100m, so check with local authorities.
- Don't fly within 1.5km of airports
- The government district in Berlin is a no-fly zone
- Drones under 5kg have are exempt from specific legal aviation requirements
- You need permission to fly above military installations, power plants, industrial zones, accident scenes and large crowds
There's a new app called DFS-DrohnenApp which you can download for iOS and Android that will tell you where you can and can't fly in Germany.
- Keep the drone in your line of sight and below 120m (400ft) at all times
- Don't fly over groups of people at parks, beaches, concerts, processions, crowds etc
- Don’t fly near to airfields or aerodromes
- No flying over urban zones, such as cities
- Do not fly at night
Here's a helpful map of Spain's no-fly zones
- Fly below 230ft
- Keep the drone within 490ft horizontally
- You may not fly your drone over densely populated areas, crowds, beaches, national parks, railways, roads or industrial plants
- Fly at least 8km away from aerodromes
- Do not fly at night
- You must fly at least 50m away from people or property
- You must have third party insurance
- Do not carry dangerous goods on your drone
For more countries, see Heliguy's global guide.