(Pocket-lint) - 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 - many 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?
- UK flyers are required to take a free theory test
- UK owners need to register as an operator and pay a £9 annual fee
- UK Drones with cameras and any drone over 250g needs to display the Operator ID
- 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
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is a regulatory body in the UK that sets the rules and regulations for recreational drones. From 5 November 2019, the CAA opened up new legislation requiring anyone with a drone weighing between 250g and 20kg to register as a drone owner, and also take an online theory test in order to fly one. From 2020 some of these rules also apply to sub-250g drones that can't reasonably be called 'toys'.
To own - or be responsible for - a drone, you need to be 18 years or older and pay a £9 annual fee to register as a drone owner. Once done successfully, you'll be issued with an operator ID to display on your drone. This - however - does not apply to absolutely every drone.
From December 2020 the CAA brought its policies in line with those from in EU member states, so that those who travel outside the UK with their drones can be sure they're not breaking any rules.
Drones and model aircraft are split into five classes from C0 to C4, with C1, C2, C3 and C4 all requiring both a Flyer ID and Operator ID. That means you need to display your ID on those drones and you need to take the theory test to fly one.
C0 is broken down into three options, essentially to make space for those sub-250g that aren't toys, because it does everything the bigger drones can (we're looking at you DJI Mini 2).
The way to remember this is that if you have a drone, regardless of weight, and it's not a toy and has a camera, you need an Operator ID displayed on it.
If you want to fly a drone that belongs to someone else, regardless of your age, you need to pass a free online (or offline) theory test. You can take this test as many times as you want, and there's no minimum age, although anyone under 12 needs to have adult supervision.
In order to take the test, to register or read up on more of the latest requirements, head to the CAA's dedicated page.
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 metres)
- Observe your drone at all times - stay 150 feet (50 metres) 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 metres 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 (120 metres).
- Always make sure your drone is within 500 metres from you horizontally.
- Always fly your drone away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields. New laws introduced on October 2019 restricts all drones from flying above 400 feet and within 5km of airport boundaries.
- Camera drones must be flown at last 50 metres away from a person, vehicle, building, or structure not owned or controlled by the pilot unless they're under 250g.
- Camera drones cannot fly within 150 metres of a congested area or large group of people, like a sporting event or a concert.
The '5km airport rule' was introduced in the wake of a drone being illegally used near Gatwick airport in December 2018.
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 anything with your drone, including any articles that you drop from it.
As always, those who have much larger drones for professional use (ie drones over 20kg) or drones classified for specific uses will need authorisation for use and be subject to risk assessments. For most people, as casual drone users, this won't apply.
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 (25kg). 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 labelled 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 licence first. For instance, in the borough of Lambeth, you need a commercial licence, 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 landowners 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 need to register recreational drones in the UK
- You 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 licence in some areas
UK: Permits and registration
The amendment to the Air Navigation Order requires owners of drones weighing 250 grams or more to register with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and for drone pilots to take an online safety test to ensure the UK’s skies are safe from irresponsible flyers.
These requirements come into force on 30 November 2019, so there's a while yet. You'll be able to do complete the registration and course online. More recently, the CAA also proposed an annual license fee which drone owners will need to pay in order to register.
"The Department for Transport's updates... strike a sensible balance between protecting public safety and bringing the benefits of drone technology to British businesses and the public at large," said Christian Struwe, Head of Public Policy Europe at drone maker DJI in May 2018.
"The vast majority of drone pilots fly safely and responsibly, and governments, aviation authorities and drone manufacturers agree we need to work together to ensure all drone pilots know basic safety rules.
"We're therefore particularly pleased about the Department for Transport’s commitment to accessible online testing as a way of helping drone users to comply with the law."
Users who fail to register or sit the competency tests could face fines of up to £1,000.
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 new regulations also include geo-fencing, in which no-fly zones are being programmed into recreational drones. You can read more about all these new rules and regulations from the UK Gov website.
It's also worth noting that in the near future, police will have the power to seize drones, search premises and even issue fixed penalty notices where they have reasonable suspicion of a drone offence being committed.
Fines of up to £100 can be issued for even minor offences and police will also have the power to "...seize drones including electronic data stored within the device — where a serious offence has been committed and a warrant is secured."
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.
In addition, a presidential bill was signed on 13 December 2017 that requires recreational drone pilots in the States to register their UAS here with the FAA if it weighs between 0.55lbs and 55lbs. Previously, a federal appeals court overturned a similar rule, but once the act is enacted the original regulations will apply.
Commercial pilots still need to register before that act is passed. 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.