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Summary

The UK has a system of air navigation laws that apply to the use of drones. These regulations aim to ensure the safety of individuals around drones. There are stricter regulations in place for drones that carry a camera on board and record data. The rules are actively enforced by the Civil Aviation Authority. While no new legislative initiatives are currently pending, the UK is in the process of exploring additional options for the regulation of drone use.

I. Introduction

Drones, frequently referred to as “small unmanned aircraft” in the UK, [1] or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are a rapidly emerging technology that has gained considerable popularity over the past few years. They are covered under a patchwork of English laws, including aviation laws, which are regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Other areas of law that come into play, particularly if the drone has a camera mounted on it, are data protection, privacy, liability, insurance, export, and intellectual property laws, as well as the common-law torts of nuisance and trespass. [2]

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II. Laws Regulating Drones

The primary piece of legislation that covers drones is the Civil Aviation Act 1982 [3] and the Air Navigation Order 2009 made under the Act. Breaches of these aviation laws are criminal offenses, enforced by the CAA. There are also “rules of the air” that apply to airspace over the UK, as discussed below. These rules are similar to the Highway Code for roads.

It is the responsibility of the operator of the drone to ensure that the aircraft is flown safely and that applicable laws are complied with. Article 138 of the Air Navigation Order provides that any person undertaking aviation activity “must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property.” [4] The CAA policy requires that drones meet the same safety and operational standards as manned aircraft to ensure that they do not “present or create a greater hazard to persons, property, vehicles, or vessels . . . than that attributable to the operations of manned aircraft of equivalent class or category.” [5]

The conditions contained in articles 166 and 167 of the Air Navigation Order specifically apply to small drones and permit them to be flown without complying with the other terms of the Air Navigation Order, such as airworthiness and flight-crew licensing requirements. [6] These laws are intended to be “as ‘light touch’ and proportionate as possible, so there is a great deal that can be done (especially for private or recreational flights) without the need to approach the CAA at all.” [7] Permission from the CAA is not required for flights that are not flown in return for any “valuable consideration,” provided the flight is not close to people and/or buildings. [8]

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III. Restrictions

A. Weight Restrictions – Aircraft 20 Kg and Under

  • Aircraft that weigh 20 kilograms or less are covered by articles 166 and 167 of the Air Navigation Order. These articles provide basic safety measures, such as

  • prohibitions on dropping articles or animals from the drone that would endanger persons or property;[9]

  • requirements that direct, unaided, visual contact be maintained that is sufficient to monitor the flight path of a small unmanned aircraft “in relation to other aircraft, persons, vehicles, vessels and structures for the purposes of avoiding collisions;” [10]

  • prohibitions on aircraft being flown above 400 meters in altitude or farther than 500 meters horizontally away from the operator without explicit permission from the Civil Aviation Authority; and

  • requiring the operator to ensure that he or she only fly the drone if it can be done safely.

    Drones with cameras attached must not be flown within 150 meters of a congested area or 50 meters of a person, vessel, vehicle, or structure that is not under the control of the pilot. This makes it difficult for people to fly UAVs with cameras inside parks or other public areas and remain in compliance with the regulations.

B. Aircraft Over 20 Kg

Unmanned aircraft that weigh between 20–150 kg are subject to all articles of the Air Navigation Order, and the operators of these aircraft are required to obtain a certificate of airworthiness, have a permit to fly, have a licensed flight crew, and follow the rules of the air. [11] If the operator is unable to meet all the requirements, he or she may apply to the CAA for an exemption under article 242 of the Air Navigation Order. Exemptions are issued on a case-by-case basis. As with aircraft under 20 kg, aircraft between 20–150 kg may not drop articles or animals, regardless of whether a parachute is used, that would endanger persons or property. [12]

C. Geographical Restrictions

As noted above, the UK has many restrictions on where drones can be operated that serve in practice to limit the available areas to use such devices. The Air Navigation Order provides that, without explicit permission from the CAA, drones may not be flown

  • within 150 meters of, or over, a congested area;

  • within 150 meters of, or over, an organized open-air assembly of 1,000 or more people;

  • within 50 meters of any vehicle, structure, or vessel that is not under the control of the operator; or

  • within 50 meters of any person not under the control of the operator. [13]

In addition to these requirements, there are also a vast number of specified no-fly zones for drones. These fall into the following four categories:

  • restricted areas that may never be flown over, such as prisons and nuclear power stations;

  • controlled airspace that should not be flown into without explicit permission from air traffic control, which covers airports and airfields;

  • “prohibited areas,” which are zones that operators are highly recommended against flying into for their safety and the safety of others, such as high-intensity radio transmission areas that could cause interference with the aircraft; and

  • “danger areas,” which are locations used for military weapons and pilot training, as well as testing military equipment. [14]

The Secretary of State has authority under the Air Navigation Order to make regulations to restrict or prohibit flying in certain areas if it is necessary in the public interest where there is a gathering or movement of a large number of people, an aircraft race, or a contest or flying display; for the purposes of national defense; or for any other reason that affects the public interest. Failing to comply with the regulations issued by the Secretary of State in these circumstances is an offense.

D. Commercial Use

Any person that uses a drone for commercial purposes must obtain a license from the Civil Aviation Authority. To obtain the license, the operator must demonstrate that he or she is sufficiently competent. The House of Lords estimates that there are tens of thousands of drones in the UK, with approximately 500 small drones under 20 kg licensed for commercial use. There are currently two units between 20–50 kg in commercial use in the UK. [15]

E. Insurance

Most operators of aircraft that weigh over 20 kg are required to obtain adequate levels of insurance to cover their liability in case of an accident. [16] Model aircraft under 20 kg are exempt from these requirements. [17]

F. Privacy Concerns

The use of cameras on drones to record images, including people without their consent, poses issues of compliance with current laws. Recording such information could potentially breach the obligations contained in the Data Protection Act [18] and the CCTV Code of Practice,[19] which address certain aspects of the use of drones that collect information about individuals. While the Code of Practice distinguishes between private and commercial users, and notes that commercial operators must comply with data protection obligations, it further states that “it will be good practice for domestic users to be aware of the potential privacy intrusion which the use of [unmanned aerial systems] can cause to make sure they’re used in a responsible manner.”[20]

The privacy and data protection obligations that arise can be further complicated if images are then posted on social media and evolve from private content into public content. A number of social networks state in their terms and conditions that they can license user content to third parties. [21]

Any aircraft that is registered in any other country is not permitted to fly over the UK for the purposes of aerial photography or aerial surveys, regardless of whether valuable consideration is given for the flight, unless the operators have the permission of the Secretary of State and comply with the conditions attached to such permission. [22]

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IV. Regulation of Drones Controlled by Multiple Operators

No separate regulations were located that apply to the recreational use of drones controlled by multiple operators. All operators would be required to abide by the regulations of the Air Navigation Order and operate the drone within the limits of these laws. [23]

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V. Requirements for Installation of Software During Manufacture to Prohibit Drones from Flying in Restricted Areas

There does not appear to be a requirement for software to be installed in drones to prohibit them from flying into restricted areas, and the UK does not appear to use an “electric fence” linked to the frequencies of drones that would prevent them from entering a restricted area. While there is no requirement for this technology, some major drone manufacturers are including the technology as part of the manufacturing process on their own initiative. [24]

The UK focuses on existing legislation, which provides that flying a drone in a restricted area is an offense, and these offenses are actively investigated and prosecuted by the CAA. [25]

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VI. Import and Export Requirements for Drones

Certain aspects of unmanned aerial vehicles are on UK’s Strategic Export Control List, which, as its subtitle indicates, is a list of “strategic military and dual-use items that require export authorisation.” [26] UAVs capable of carrying a payload over a certain weight, or exceeding a distance of 300 km, may not be exported without a proper license. [27] As relevant to this report, the Military List specifically includes and prohibits the export without authorization of

  • c. Unmanned aircraft and related equipment, as follows, and specially designed components therefor:
    • 1. “UAVs”, Remotely Piloted Air Vehicles (RPVs), autonomous programmable vehicles and unmanned “lighter-than-air vehicles”;
    • 2. Launchers, recovery equipment and ground support equipment;
    • 3. Equipment designed for command or control;
  • d. Propulsion aero-engines and specially designed components. [28]

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VII. Allocation of Frequencies for Drones

Drones are considered to be model control equipment [29] by Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, and are required to operate within certain frequency bands, as designated by Ofcom. Air model control devices are required to use frequencies (MHz) 34.945 to 35.305, and not exceed an effective radiated power of 100 mW. The 35 MHz band is solely dedicated to aeronautic modeling, and there is a prohibition on the use of airborne transmitters. [30] Regulations require that model control equipment must not “cause undue interference to other wireless telegraphy equipment.” [31]

The use of these specific frequencies for model control is exempt from the requirement to hold a license under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 [32] as long as the model meets certain conditions, such as operating within the designated frequencies, and the equipment must be marked lawfully in accordance with the CE marking (which indicates European Union regulatory standards are met) and comply with all relevant EU directives. A license to operate is not required for equipment that complies with all applicable regulations.

These regulations are enforced by Ofcom, which prioritizes maintaining public safety communication services its top priority, and maintaining the safety of business radio and communications its second priority. For model control equipment, Ofcom aims to ensure that noncompliant radio equipment is kept off the market and that the use of radio frequencies conforms to license requirements. [33] Using equipment that does not meet the conditions of the license exemption is an offense under the Wireless Telegraphy Act. These offenses are investigated and prosecuted by Ofcom, and the penalties include a fine of up to £5000 (approximately US$8,000) and/or six months’ imprisonment. The courts may also order the confiscation of any property used in connection with the offense. [34]

Ofcom has field operation teams that investigate and take action to prevent undue interference with frequencies. It may undertake enforcement actions, including informal warnings, formal cautions, or more formal criminal proceedings involving fines and imprisonment. [35]

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VIII. Role of Local Authorities in Drone Regulation

The approach of local authorities towards the use of drones varies. Some local authorities appear not to have published any guidance on the use of drones in their localities. Other local authorities specifically require drone owners to comply with the Air Navigation Order and the CAA requirements for licenses for commercial flights. [36]

Local authorities have the ability to introduce policies to regulate the use of drones on any land owned by the authority. For example, Leicester City Council prohibits the use of drones, both for recreational and commercial purposes, on City Council lands. [37] The reason behind this policy is concern over the authorities’ liability for any legal action as a result of the activities of a drone and its operator, including accident or injury and the close proximity of the land to private properties. [38] Any person caught using a drone on the property of the local authority will be requested to stop. If they refuse, the police will be called and the person removed from the property in accordance with the by-laws. [39]

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IX. Enforcement

The CAA is responsible for ensuring compliance with the Air Navigation Order and it works with the police and other agencies in carrying out this responsibility. The laws and regulations are being actively enforced by the CAA. A number of individuals have been prosecuted for violating the restrictions contained in the regulations. [40]

The majority of enforcement actions by the CAA are aimed at individuals who use drones for commercial purposes and are not licensed. However, safety is the overriding concern of the regulations contained in the Air Navigation Order, and the CAA will take action against individuals using a drone for personal purposes when it causes a safety hazard. [41]

In December 2015, the CAA announced that it would take action against individuals operating drones on a recreational basis if they did not follow the regulations—in particular the prohibition on flying over congested areas or within 50 meters of buildings or people without official permission. [42] Failing to observe these regulations can result in a criminal prosecution and a fine of up to £5,000.

In the first conviction in the UK for a violation of aviation laws by a drone operator, the CAA prosecuted an individual in 2014 after he lost control of his drone near a nuclear submarine facility. The individual was subsequently convicted for dangerous use of a recreational drone. In May 2014 an individual was fined for flying a drone over rides at Alton Towers, an amusement park. [43] Other prosecutions include the prosecution of an operator who flew drones with a camera over multiple premiere league soccer grounds, the Houses of Parliament, a memorial at Buckingham Palace, and parts of the River Thames. This individual was charged with breaching articles (2)(a), 166(3), and 167(1) of the Air Navigation Order. The defendant pled guilty to flying a small unmanned aircraft over a congested area and not maintaining direct visual contact with a drone. He was fined £1,800 (approximately US$2,500), ordered to pay £600 (approximately US$1,000) in costs, and required to forfeit his drones and cameras. [44]

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X. Proposed Reforms

The House of Lords has been actively considering whether legislation is needed to better regulate the civilian use of drones since 2014, when the EU Select Affairs Committee began an inquiry into their use. [45] The House of Lords issued a report as a result of this inquiry, in which it noted that advances in technology and a decrease in the cost of drones has led to an inconsistent regulatory framework that currently distinguishes between the commercial and noncommercial use of drones. [46] This distinction operated on the basis that noncommercial users had a pre-existing knowledge of aviation and the rules of the air; however, advances in technology mean that similar aircraft are being used by commercial and recreational users, but under different regulations. [47] The report made a number of recommendations, including the creation of an online database where pilots of drones can record their flight plans, and the necessity in the future of creating a mandatory system of registration for all commercial and civil drones. [48]

There are currently no pending legislative initiatives, but the UK is in the process of inquiring into legislative and other measures to further regulate the use of drones.

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Prepared by Clare Feikert-Ahalt
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
April 2016


[1] This is defined in article 255 of the Air Navigation Order 2009, SI 2009/3015, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/ 2009/3015/pdfs/uksi_20093015_en.pdf , archived at https://perma.cc/J99H-C454, as “any unmanned aircraft, other than a balloon or a kite, having a mass of not more than 20kg without its fuel but including any articles or equipment installed in or attached to the aircraft at the commencement of its flight.”

[2] Peter Lee, Some Thoughts on the Drone Sector, Drones and the Law (blog) (Feb. 4, 2016),http://dronelaw. blogspot.co.uk, archived at https://perma.cc/9NK8-MV5T.

[3] Civil Aviation Act 1982, c. 16, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1982/16, archived at https://perma.cc/VDB5-2VW2.

[4] Air Navigation Order 2009 art. 138.

[5] Civil Aviation Authority, Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK Airspace – Guidance, Cap. 722, ¶ 1.1, http://publicapps.caa.co.uk/docs/33/CAP%20722%20Sixth%20Edition%20March%202015.pdf , archived at https://perma.cc/9W8R-K7Z7.

[6] Id. ¶ 2.19.

[7] Leicester City Council, Drone and Model Aircraft Policy 2015, at 5,https://www.leicester.gov.uk/media/180601/ drone-policy.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/9ZYR-8NNE.

[8] Id.

[9] Air Navigation Order 2009, art. 166.

[10] Civil Aviation Authority, Small Unmanned Aircraft: Specific Regulations About Small Drones, https://www.caa. co.uk/Commercial-Industry/Aircraft/Unmanned-aircraft/Small-unmanned-aircraft (last visited Mar. 14, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/65GF-DU7Y.

[11] House of Lords, EU Select Affairs Committee, 7th Report of Session 2014–15, Civilian Use of Drones in the EU, 2014–15, HL 122, at ¶ 40, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201415/ldselect/ldeucom/122/ 122.pdf , archived at https://perma.cc/3BHD-93ZU.

[12] Air Navigation Order art. 129.

[13] Id. arts. 166 & 167.

[14] Mary-Ann Russon, Drone No-fly Zones in the UK Explained – Where in Britain Can You Pilot a UAV?, International Business Times (Apr. 15, 2015), http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/drone-no-fly-zones-uk-explained-where-britain-can-you-pilot-uav-1496386 , archived at https://perma.cc/5E7P-BN3U.

[15] House of Lords, supra note 11, tbl. 1.

[16] Civil Aviation (Insurance) Regulations 2005,http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2005/20051089.htm, archived at https://perma.cc/ZPY5-XKZ2.

[17] Civil Aviation Authority, Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK Airspace – Guidance, supra note 5, ¶ 2.19.

[18] Data Protection Act 1998, c. 29, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/29, archived at https://perma.cc/9333-S9LM.

[19] Information Commissioner’s Office, In the Picture: A Data Protection Code of Practice for Surveillance Cameras and Personal Information, Version 1.1 (May 21, 2015), https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisations/documents/1542/ cctv-code-of-practice.pdf , archived at https://perma.cc/NT63-39EZ .

[20] Id. at 30.

[21] Sophie Curtis, Drone Laws in the UK – What Are the Rules, Telegraph (London) (Apr. 16, 2015), http://www. telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/11541504/Where-is-the-legal-line-in-flying-drones.html , archived at https://perma.cc/78T7-MFT8.

[22] Air Navigation Order 2009, art. 225.

[23] Id . arts. 166–167.

[24] See , e.g., Emily Reynolds, DJI Update Enforces Drone No-fly Zones Across Europe and USA, Wired.co.uk (Nov. 18, 2015), http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-11/18/dji-drone-restricted-airspace , archived at https://perma.cc/CRX6-EMLT.

[25] Air Navigation Order 2009, arts. 166–167.

[26] Department for Innovation, Business and Skills, UK Strategic Export Control Lists: The Consolidated List of Strategic Military and Dual-Use Items That Require Export Authorisation, Dec. 2015, at 1, https://www.gov.uk/ government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/488993/controllist20151225.pdf , archived at https://perma.cc/5P2M-5MGQ.

[27] Id. at 9.

[28] Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, UK Military List ML 10(c), (d) (Apr. 2015), https://www.gov.uk/ government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/422370/militarylist20150417.pdf , archived at https://perma.cc/27Y5-NFQA.

[29] OfW 311 – Radio Controlled Models , Ofcom, http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/spectrum/information/licence-exempt-radio-use/licence-exempt-devices/ofw311 (last visited Apr. 12, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/HNM3-QVDH. “EU harmonised decision 2013/752/EU for Short Range Devices (SRD) defines model control as; ‘Model control devices are a specific kind of telecommand and telemetry radio equipment that is used to remotely control the movement of models (principally miniature representations of vehicles) in the air, on land or over or under the water surface.’ ” Ofcom, IR 2030 – UK Interface Requirements 2030 Licence Exempt Short Range Devices, 98/34/EC Notification No. 2011/0401/UK (Dec. 2011), http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/spectrum/ spectrum-policy-area/spectrum-management/research-guidelines-tech-info/interface-requirements/IR_2030.pdf , archived at https://perma.cc/L949-4CUT.

[30] OfW 311 – Radio Controlled Models , supra note 29.

[31] Id .

[33] Ofcom, IR 2030 - UK Interface Requirements, supra note 29.

[34] Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006, c. 36, §§ 8, 45, 46, 96 & scheds. 4–6,http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/ 2006/36/contents, archived at https://perma.cc/6M6Y-JD82.

[35] Id . ch. 4.

[36] See , e.g., Leicester City Council, supra note 7, at 3–5.

[37] Id . at 7.

[38] Id .

[39] Id . at 9.

[40] Safety Warning for Drones Given as Christmas Gifts , Telegraph (London) (Dec. 25, 2014), http://www. telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11313110/Safety-warning-for-drones-given-as-Christmas-gifts.html , archived at https://perma.cc/DH2S-MCDK .

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] Charles Arthur, UK’s First Drone Conviction Will Bankrupt Me, Says Cumbrian Man, The Guardian (London) (Apr. 2, 2014), http://www.caa.co.uk/application.aspx?appid=7&mode=detail&nid=2348 , archived at https://perma. cc/XB53-KGTM.

[44] Press Release, Crown Prosecution Service, Man Convicted for Illegally Flying Drone over Football Stadiums and Landmarks (Sept. 15, 2016), http://www.cps.gov.uk/london/press_releases/man_convicted_for_illegally_flying_ drone_over_football_stadiums_and_landmarks , archived at https://perma.cc/CP8S-CVQQ.

[45] House of Lords Report, supra note 11.

[46] Id . ¶ 18.

[47] Id .

[48] Id . at 248.