Drones and the law

7 May, 2015

It seems nowadays that everyone, from your local estate agent, to your great uncle Ian, has a drone (also known as an unmanned aerial system/UAS). Sales of drones over the Christmas period were reported to be up 24%, and with drones available from as little as £50, this trend seems set to continue. But drones are not toys and using a drone without understanding the law could quickly land you in hot water, as Robert Knowles, of Barrow-in-Furness, discovered last year when he was fined £800 and ordered to pay costs of £3,500 after being prosecuted by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for flying his drone within 50 metres of the Jubilee Bridge on the Walney Channel and flying over the BAE System nuclear submarine-testing facility. 

So what is the law on drone use? 

There are two sets of regulations which apply to the use of drones in the UK, whether they are being used for commercial or recreational purposes:


  • aviation regulations which are enforced by the CAA; and
  • data protection regulations which apply where the drone is used for capturing personal data and which are enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). 

Aviation regulations – drones up to 20kg 

The CAA has issued detailed guidance on the use of small drones (i.e. those weighing up to 20kg). Essentially, the person controlling the drone is responsible for the safe operation of the flight and for the consequences resulting from that flight. However, in certain circumstances it will also be necessary to obtain permission from the CAA. Unless CAA permission has been granted, you cannot:


  • fly a drone on a commercial basis (this is known as conducting ‘aerial work’);
  • fly a drone over or within 150m (492 ft) of a congested area;
  • fly a drone over or within 150m (492 ft) of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons (such as a sporting event or concert);
  • fly a drone within 50m (164 ft) of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under your control; or
  • fly a drone within 50m (164 ft) of any person.


Permission will not be required if your drone will not be flown close to people or properties and you will not get ‘valuable consideration’ (i.e. payment) from the flight.


Drones should also never be flown beyond the normal unaided ‘line of sight’ of the person operating it. This is generally measured as 500m horizontally or 400ft vertically.


It is important to note that flying a drone on a commercial basis can include selling footage or images taken using a drone. Last year, the CAA issued a photographer from Lancashire with a caution for “using an unmanned aerial vehicle for commercial gain without permission” after the photographer sold footage of a fire at a school to media organisations despite not having permission from the CAA to operate the drone commercially. 

Larger drones  

Whilst the laws in the UK regarding the use of small drones aim to striking a balance between safety and the development of the commercial market for unmanned aerials systems, more stringent rules apply to the use of drones over 20kg.


Drones between 20kg and 150kg require operating permission, an airworthiness certificate and a qualified pilot. Above 150kg, drone operators also need an EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) Permit to Fly or UK Permit to Fly. 

Data protection regulations 

Where drones are fitted with cameras / recording equipment, there will also be data protection and privacy issues which will need to be considered. The UK data protection authority, the ICO, largely views the images captured by drones as equivalent to the use of CCTV, although with drones there is even greater scope for infringement of privacy as drones can be used to film people in circumstances where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy (for example, in their back garden).


The capture of images of identifiable individuals, even inadvertently, when using cameras mounted to drones, will be subject to the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). The DPA contains requirements concerning the collection, storage and use of such images. The ICO has provided the following tips on the responsible use of drones where images of individuals may be captured:


  • where possible let people know before you start recording;
  • consider your surroundings. Do not use your drone to capture images of people where to do so may intrude on their privacy;
  • get to know your camera first to enable you to understand what images it is likely to capture and whether it will be possible to identify individuals from those images;
  • think before sharing your images and avoid sharing images that could have unfair or harmful consequences. Apply the same common sense approach that you would with images or video recorded by a smartphone or digital camera; and
  • keep the images safe. The images you have taken may be saved on an SD card or USB drive attached to the drone or the camera. If they are not necessary, then don’t keep them. If you do want to keep them, then make sure they are kept in a safe place and only retained for as long as they are needed.


The tips set out above for compliance with the DPA apply to the use of drones for recreational purposes. Additional rules apply to the use of drones for commercial purposes and commercial operators should ensure that they are fully aware of their obligations as data controllers when using drones for commercial purposes which could capture the images of identifiable individuals.


More information on the laws relating to drone use is available from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) website – www.caa.co.uk – and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) website – www.ico.org.uk.