If you want to buy a drone for recreational use, make sure you know all the rules and regulations first.
Imagine spending all the money you've saved up on that one super sexy drone you've been eyeing for a while, only to find out that you can't operate it anywhere near your house and that your chances of flying it around are severely limited. Obviously, that would be a huge bummer. But what's the chance of that happening? What are the rules and regulations? Do you even know if you need to register or get a permit?
These are all great questions. And you've come to the right place for answers. In this guide, we'll explain everything you need to know about drones, including what they are and what you can legally do with them in your area - whether you live in the UK or the US.
What are recreational drones?
- Drones are also called UAS or quadcopters
- Recreational drones are for fun, not work
- Recreational drones can have built-in cameras
Drones, also called an unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or quadcopters, are a type of aircraft without a human pilot onboard; they are controlled by an operator on the ground. Drones have boomed in popularity in recent years, and are now used for military operations, aerial inspections, delivery and shipping, photography, and more. In this guide, we're focusing on recreational drones.
There are plenty of recreational drones that you can use for fun - some even come with built-in cameras. These are smaller drones for personal use. You do not use them for work, or get paid to fly them. Check out Pocket-lint's guide below for more information about what kinds of recreational drones are available for the average consumer, including which are the top-rated:
What are the rules and regulations?
- You can't fly drones near airports in the US and UK
- Drones shouldn't fly higher than 400 feet in the US and UK
- You are responsible for flying your drone in a safe manner
UK: Rules and regulations
Th Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is a regulatory body in the UK that sets the rules and regulations for recreational drones. At first, the CAA's website listed all drones as "small unmanned aerial vehicles", and it was difficult to determine which rules applied to your drone, especially if you owned a modern, professional-level quadcopter. Now, however, there's a new website just for drones.
On the CAA's Drone code page, the basic rules are laid out:
- Don't fly near airports or airfields
- Remember to stay below 400 feet (120 meters)
- Observe your drone at all times - stay 150 feet (50 meters) away from people and property
- Never fly near aircraft
- Enjoy responsibly
Of course, many quadcopters fly much higher than the CAA's 400-foot limit, and naturally, it's hard to tell whether a drone has flown 500 meters from you horizontally. Nevertheless, there's this handy PDF you can download to help remember the rules. And, with that said, the rules do get more granular when you read through the CAA's literature:
- Always keep your drone within your line of sight and at a maximum height of 400 feet (122 meters).
- Always make sure your drone is within 500 meters from you horizontally.
- Always fly your drone away from aircraft, helicopters, airports, and airfields.
- Camera drones must be flown at last 50 meters away from a person, vehicle, building, or structure not owned or controlled by the pilot.
- Camera drones cannot fly within 150 meters of a congested area or large group of people, like a sporting event or a concert.
But that's not all. The CAA's website lists some additional terms you must adhere to:
- You are responsible for flying your drone in a safe manner.
- You must not endanger anyone, or any thing with your drone, including any articles that you drop from it.
US: Rules and regulations
If you're flying a drone for recreational use, there's good news: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) only has a few rules in place for small, non-commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds. These are also known as model aircraft. On the FAA’s website, you'll see the following safety guidelines for these drones, established by Congress:
- Fly at or below 400 feet
- Be aware of airspace requirements and restrictions
- Stay away from surrounding obstacles
- Keep your drone within sight
- Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports
- Never fly over groups of people
- Never fly over stadiums or sports events
- Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires
- Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol
But if you comb through the FAA's drone literature, you'll find additional safety guidelines:
- Keep your drone in eyesight, and use an observer to assist if needed.
- Remain at least 25 feet from individuals and vulnerable property.
- Do not fly in adverse weather conditions (high winds, reduced visibility, etc).
- Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property (power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily
- traveled roadways, government facilities, etc).
- Do not conduct surveillance or photograph persons in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without the individual’s permission.
Where can't you fly your drone?
- Both US and UK National Parks don't allow drones
- Many parts of London and congested areas ban drones
- Can't fly drones near the White House or military bases
UK: No-fly zones
This is tricky, because you must follow all the rules listed above, but even still, there are some places that don't permit drone flying whatsoever and are labeled as no-fly zones, maybe even your local park. Always check before you fly. Many parks have visible signage to indicate what is or isn't permitted. Just look out for the 'no model aircraft' sign to determine whether you can fly your drone.
Now, we've done some digging to make this a little easier for you. We've found that all eight of London's Royal Parks are no-fly zones. Many commons don't allow drones (or even kites!) as well, such as Wimbledon Common, Putney Common, and Clapham Common. But you can fly on some heaths, like Hampstead Heath and Blackheath. And you can fly in parks in Ealing, as well as around Barnet and Camden.
Islington and Sutton also allow drones. In other areas, including some boroughs, you're allowed to fly a drone - but only if you have a license first. For instance, in the borough of Lambeth, you need a commercial license, even if you're an amateur drone operator. In Hackney, too, you need to fill out an application, which you can find here.
UK: Other restricted areas
As for other completely restricted areas, you cannot fly in Chelsea, Lewisham, Dagenham, Barking, and Redbridge. Bexley and Derby ban drones from all parks and open spaces, too. The Peak District National Park's website says you can't fly in the park and must obtain permission from any land that isn't part of the National Park, like the National Trust land. You can't fly a drone in the New Forest either.
Keep in mind, too, that if your drone is fitted with a camera, there are quite often additional limitations surrounding where you can fly it, and how close you can fly it to other uninvolved people or objects. In order to be able to fly within these restricted areas throughout the UK, you must obtain prior permission from the CAA to do so. You can learn more about these areas and rules from here.
Obviously, as discussed earlier, you can never fly near airports, power stations, and military bases. If you're unsure if you can fly somewhere, just check with the local council, or use the NATS Drone Assist app, which is available for Android and iOS, to see all the no-fly zones in the UK. It also displays ground hazards like railway lines, schools, petrol stations, and other areas where you should be cautious.
And finally, you need permission from land owners before you can take off or land on their private property. So, check with your neighbour before you just land your quadcopter in their garden. You can fly in the airspace over their land if you don't cause a disturbance or infringe on their privacy. If you upset a neighbour and are brought to court, a judge will decide if you infringed their rights.
US: No-fly zones
According to the FAA, the US has the most complex airspace in the world. So, yeah, bear with us...
The No. 1 place you can't fly a drone near in the US is an airport. You must be at least five miles away to operate without notifying the control tower of your activity. If you plan to fly closer, notice must be given to the airport operator or air traffic control tower. If you're worried about whether you're too close to an airport to fly, use an app like AirMap to see where you're allowed to fly.
Launching, landing, or operating drones is prohibited on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service. More information about the National Park Service drone ban is available on the website, including information about the parks and their no-fly zones. Other prohibited areas include the White House, Camp David, as well as most military installations.
Before flying in Washington DC or other high-security areas, be sure to check with the secret service and/or a controlling agency first. But, more often than that, you will not be allowed. Just warning you. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also prohibits drones in marine protection areas. It's even illegal to fly your drone in or around a wildfire firefighting operation.
Lastly, flying drones is prohibited within a radius of three miles of a stadium or venue, but only starting one hour before and ending one hour after the scheduled time of the following events: MLB, NFL, NCAA Division One Football, NASCAR Sprint Cup, Indy Car, and Champ Series.
US: Other restricted areas
In the US, there is a thing called Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs). The FAA uses this to temporarily restrict flights in certain areas. Some TFRs have become more permanent, like those around Disneyland and Disneyworld. Other times, they are event-based, like when the President travels to a town. The FAA publishes active TFRs, as do some apps. So, always check before flying.
The website Know Before You Fly has a handy US Air Space map that shows exactly where you can or cannot fly at any given time. Additionally, you can use the FAA's B4UFLY app, which is available in the App Store and Google Play store, to determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements where you want to fly. The FAA also has this restricted locations map.
Do you need to register or get a permit?
- You will soon need to register recreational drones in the UK
- You no longer need to register recreational drones in the US
- You might need permission to fly in some areas across the US and UK
- UK amateur pilots might even need a commercial license in some areas
UK: Permits and registration
You do not need to get a permit for a recreational drone in the UK.
That is, unless you're flying in an area that requires a commercial license (even if you're a hobbyist), or if you're flying in an area that requires permission for camera-equipped recreational drones. You can learn more about these exceptions in the section above. If you are using your drone for paid work, you will need "Permission for Aerial Work". This permit of sorts must be renewed annually.
The UK government on 22 July announced plans for small recreational drone registration, as well as safety awareness courses, for anyone who owns a drone that weighs more than 250g. There are no firm plans as to how the new rules will be enforced at this time. However, pilots will apparently be able to register online or through apps, under plans currently being explored by the UK government.
We do know for sure that a new drone safety awareness test will involve pilots having to "prove that they understand UK safety, security and privacy regulations", it said. The new regulations will also include geo-fencing, in which no-fly zones will be programmed into recreational drones. You can read more about all these new rules and regulations, which aren't yet live, from the UK Gov website.
US: Permits and registration
You only need permission to fly a recreational drone in the US if you plan to use it in restricted airspace. And the FAA recommends that you check and follow all local laws and ordinances before flying over private property. At one time, pilots flying for fun had to register their drone here with the FAA if it weighed more than 8 ounces. But a federal appeals court determined that was an overreach.
So, now, you don't have to register your recreational drone.
However, if flying for commercial purposes, pilots still need to register. They must also follow a different set of FAA regulations, which went into effect in 2016. If you plan to sell media captured with your drone, or if you are paid to fly a drone, you are a commercial drone pilot.