Drones (and the accompanying hobby, “droning”) have become hugely popular in recent years, and with costs continually falling, they’re more accessible than ever.

From kids' toys to high-end, HD camera-equipped flying machines for the serious hobbyist, there’s a lot to choose from. But not everyone’s clear on the rules surrounding them, or whether the UK has drone laws at all.

In this post, we’ll advise you on the current guidelines, so you can enjoy your hobby without worry.

Are there drone laws in the UK?

Yes. Most laws governing the safe use of drones already fall under the Air Navigation Order 2016.

All following advice is correct at the time of writing. Visit the CAA's drone page for further up-to-date information, or Dronesafe for safety guides, tips and aps.

At present, the most important laws affecting drone owners can be summarised like this:

• Drone users must not recklessly or negligently act in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft, or any person in an aircraft, or permit or cause a drone to endanger a person or property.

• Drone users can only fly their drone if they are satisfied a flight can safely be made. They must keep their drone in sight at all times, and maintain a distance of:

  • 50m from vehicles, structures or people (without permission).
  • 150m from congested areas or large crowds of people.
  • They must also not fly drones higher than 400ft (120m), or within certain categories of airspace without permission.

• Drone users collecting personal data must comply with the Data Protection Act 1988 unless a relevant exemption applies.

• Drones being flown over the property of another person must maintain a “reasonable” height at all times that does not interfere with the person’s use of the property.

That may be a lot to digest, so the Department for Transport teamed up with the Civil Aviation Authority to offer a simplified set of six guidelines, known as the Drone Code:

• Always keep your drone in sight.

• Stay below 400ft (120m).

• Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

• Keep the right distance from people or property (150m for crowds and built-up areas, 50m elsewhere).

• You are responsible for each flight.

• Stay well away from aircraft, airports and airfields.

They’re pretty common-sense – the 400ft rule is to avoid collisions and interference with aircraft, and the people and property guidelines are to stop you annoying your neighbours and causing accidents. Also, bear in mind that as the operator of the drone, anything it does will likely be considered something you’ve done in the eyes of the law.

Are UK drone laws going to change?

Yes. In July 2017, the Department for Transport published a consultation on drones that could lead to the current rules being tweaked, tightened up or extended in future.

There’s currently no timeframe for writing these into law, but it’s a good idea to get familiar with them now. In particular, hobbyists should be aware of:

• A registration scheme and mandatory competency tests for all users of drones weighing 250g and above.

• An authoritative source of UK airspace data to be brought forward, including the implementation of “geo-fencing” – a technology that will automatically block access to restricted areas.

• New offences, penalties and powers to be made available to law enforcement agencies regarding drones.

250g isn’t much: most drones that aren’t specifically kids’ toys will be heavier than this, so the message the government seems to be sending is that nearly all drones will need to be registered in future. You can get a head-start on registering your drone at DroneReg, the official UK drone register.

How these competency tests will work remains to be seen. The consultation mentions the possibility of introducing practical and theory flying tests, administered by the Civil Aviation Authority. However, they could end up being something less drastic, such as a safety awareness course.

Although the mention of new offences and penalties might sound alarming, the consultation makes clear that the government is enthusiastic about drones and wants to encourage their safe and legal use - not crack down on everyone indiscriminately.

It mentions that the UK is “at the forefront of an exciting and fast-growing drones market” and wants to create a “world-leading research and development centre” for a market that’s expected to be worth over £100 billion worldwide by 2025.

So don’t be nervous – but do be safe and sensible.

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