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The use of drones and the law

Updated: Feb 17

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or ‘Drones’ as they are generally better known, have expanded in recent years from an experimental military technology into a common household item which can be purchased in many high street retailers. Legally, they can weigh up to 20kg, and cost typically between £300 and £30,000. If not used commercially, no licence is needed to own one, and no restrictions exist on purchase or use according to age. Their appearance has led to many people viewing them as a ‘toy’, not appreciating the legal obligations one must fulfil when using them.

The prevalence of drone technology raises a number of concerns for society.

  • Are they a threat to safety? In 2014, a man was arrested for flying a drone over a large football stadium during a Manchester-Tottenham game and several incidents have been noted of drones coming very close to colliding with civilian aircraft mid-air. A man in Cumbria has been fined £800 for ‘dangerous use of a recreational drone’ after flying his drone close to a BAE System nuclear submarine test facility.

  • Might they be a threat to privacy? Many people who use drones do so in the pursuit of aerial photography. Drones have the potential to be an area of technology that becomes ever more a part of our lives in the coming decades, with Amazon and Google already investigating the possibility of using them in their delivery services.

Here, we hope to explain what the law at present says about the use of drones, as the technology may very well be the subject of much litigation and possibly legislative regulation in the near future.

At present, no legislation exists in respect to the civilian use of drone technology. However, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) advises civilian users in the following areas:

  • Flying a drone close to an airport or aircraft will definitely constitute a criminal offence, with the potential of endangering the safety of flight passengers.

  • It is also illegal to fly a drone over congested areas, or “within 50 metres of a person, vehicle, vessel or building”. In practical terms, drones should really only be flown in open-air areas in the countryside, outside of built-up areas. As this extensive map shows (, it would be illegal to fly a drone in any large British population centre.

  • Liability for any unlawful use of a particular drone is attached firmly to whoever operates the drone, and the operator must keep the drone within their sight, never flying more than 400 feet high in altitude, or beyond 500 metres horizontally.

  • With respect to privacy, users should refrain from taking any photos or footage of other people, as they may be in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998, especially if, for instance, the drone is flying over someone’s garden or a children’s playground.

With police across the country considering the use of drones for surveillance, the issue of drones and civil liberties looks likely to expand considerably in the legal sphere over coming years. There is also the possibility that frequent use of a drone over someone’s property could be seen as a nuisance or even harassment. In the US state of Michigan for instance, a law was passed after hunting groups complained drones were being used by environmentalists to harass them and interrupt their activities.

In conclusion, the law at present imposes strict regulations on the private use of drones across the UK. However, it seems that at present most of these regulations are either ignored, or not widely known by drone users. Drone technology has the potential to be an enriching and enjoyable asset when used by responsible individuals, and in years to come, its broad scope for commercial application could be a successful driver of competition and yield improving standards for consumers.

However, as the technology becomes more developed, and more widely used, there does exist the potential for incidents involving serious injury, damage to property, disruption to public events and indeed breaches of privacy. This is even though the spectre of huge fines and criminal records awaits those who use drones in an illegal or thoughtless way. If such incidents are particularly prevalent, possible solutions may include restricting the sale of drones to adults only and perhaps to grant licences for their use.

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