Drones and the Air Navigation Order: A short guide

This article will quickly cover some of the relevant regulation that are applicable to drone operators in England and Wales. Following recent prosecutions, and the proliferation of regulation, it is becoming increasingly important and difficult for drone operators to decipher the laws they should be following. 

The  Air Navigation Order 2016 contains the majority of information required to comprehend what a drone operator can and can't do.  However, it can be difficult to understand.  The Civil Aviation Authority ('CAA') enforce this order, which is supported by criminal sanctions for non-compliance.

Only parts of the Air Navigation Order apply to people using drones, unless the drone weighs more than 20 kg's in which case technically it is subject to it in its entirety. In order to use such a drone, a special exemption should be obtained from the CAA.

In general terms drone operators are not allowed to use their drones for dropping items for agricultural, horticultural or forestry purposes unless they have a permission from the CAA. Further, a drone operator may not cause or permit an article or animal to be dropped from a drone that may endanger persons or property. 

An operator in charge of a drone may only fly the drone if they are reasonably satisfied the flight can be safely completed and they only fly where they can see the drone and monitor its flight path in relation to other persons, vehicles or structures to avoid collision.  There are some exceptions to the above rule, for example relating to the use of drones by the emergency services, but those exceptions are beyond the scope of this article.

The operator of a drone that weighs more than 7 kg must not fly the aircraft in class A,C,D or E airspace without the permission of air traffic control, and cannot fly within an aerodrome traffic zone during the hours of watch unless permission has been obtained.  A drone of such weight cannot fly more than 400 feet above the ground unless it is being flown in line with air traffic control or aerodrome directions.

In addition, drone operator must ensure that they do not cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any personal property, or fly the aircraft for any commercial operation unless in accordance with the permission given by the CAA. 

Finally, where a drone is being used to capture data a drone cannot be flown within 150 meters of any congested area or open gathering of more than 1000 persons, within 50 meters of a vessel or vehicle or structure that is not under control of the drone operator, or within 50 meters of any person that is not in control of the drone operator.  For take-off and landing, the drone must be at least 30 metres away from a person not under the control of the operator, unless there is an exemption from the CAA.

The above scratches the surface of the rules that should be complied with in order to fly a drone within the law.  Breach of the majority of the provisions listed above are an offence for which the offender is liable to a fine of up to £2,500 in the Magistrates' Court.  However, breach of the requirement not to endanger a person or property is treated differently and can be dealt with at the Magistrates' or Crown Courts. For this offence, conviction at the Magistrates' Court will result in a fine, whereas in the Crown Court the punishment is higher, potentially a fine or imprisonment not exceeding two years  or both.

Whilst there has been much made of the Drone Code publicised by the CAA, which is undoubtedly a useful short guide to the rules that a hobbyist operator should follow, drone operators should always bear in mind that they have a duty to abide by the law even if the relevant law covering the use of drones can be difficult to comprehend.

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