The UK laws model aircraft & drone pilots need to know

Model Flying and the law

Model flying is governed by the same set of laws as manned aviation (the Air Navigation Order - ANO) and from the 1st July 2018, some of the laws governing the flight of all small unmanned aircraft (including model aircraft and multi-rotors) changed.  The biggest change is the introduction of a 400ft height limit for all unmanned aircraft, with further changes (relating to registration of pilots and competency testing) to come into effect during 2019.  

If you are operating a model aircraft or ‘multi-rotor’, then you are legally responsible for the safety of the flight and an important element of this is being aware of the laws which apply to you and ensuring that you operate safely within them.  Additional legal requirements also apply if you are operating a ‘small unmanned surveillance aircraft’ equipped with a camera, including aircraft flown using First Person View.

Laws applying to all unmanned aircraft (including model aircraft and multi-rotors)

In simple terms, to operate within the law the following articles of the ANO apply to all model aircraft and multi-rotors at all times whatever their weight or size:

 1.    You must not endanger anyone else or their property. The remote pilot must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property [Article 241 of the ANO]. 

2.    You must not endanger any other aircraft.  The remote pilot must not recklessly or negligently act in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft, or any person in an aircraft [Article 240 of the ANO].

 3.    You are responsible for the safety of the flight.  The remote pilot may only fly their aircraft if reasonably satisfied that the flight can be made safely [Article 94(2) of the ANO].

 4.    Your aircraft must remain within your visual line of sight. The remote pilot must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with their aircraft sufficient to monitor its flight path in relation to other aircraft, persons, vessels and structures for the purpose of avoiding collisions [Article 94(3) of the ANO].

 5.    Your aircraft must not fly higher than 400ft.  The remote pilot of a small unmanned aircraft must not fly it at a height of more than 400 feet above the surface, unless the permission of the CAA has been obtained [Article 94A of the ANO]. 

BMFA NOTE: The BMFA, Large Model Association, Scottish Aeromodellers Association and First Person View UK have a ‘Permission’ from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which permits their members operating ‘conventionally piloted’ model aircraft (not including multi-rotors) of less than 7Kg to fly higher than 400ft.  The Associations also have a separate ‘Exemption’ from the CAA which permits their members operating ‘conventionally piloted’ model aircraft (not including multi-rotors) of less than 3.5Kg to fly up to 1000ft when flown using First Person View with a ‘competent observer’.  For further details of the Permission and Exemption, please visit www.bmfa.org or email admin@bmfa.org.  Model aircraft weighing more than 7Kg (and multi-rotors) may only operate above 400ft under the terms of an ‘exemption’ from the ANO obtained directly from the CAA.

6.    You must not operate within 1Km of an aerodrome boundary without permission.  The remote pilot must not operate a small unmanned aircraft within 1Km of the boundary of a ‘protected aerodome’ without permission of the Air Traffic Control (and CAA) [Article 94B of the ANO].

 Additional Laws applying to Small unmanned surveillance aircraft

A ‘small unmanned surveillance aircraft’ means a small unmanned aircraft which is equipped to undertake any form of surveillance or data acquisition (which includes camera equipped multi-rotor aircraft). 

In addition to the legal requirements outlined above, the law requires that you operate a ‘small surveillance aircraft’ in accordance with the following [Article 95 of the ANO]:

1.    You must not fly over or within 150 metres of any congested area;

 2.    You must not fly over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons;

 3.    You must not fly within 50 metres of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under your control;

 4.    You must not fly within 50 metres of any person other than (5) below;

 5.    You must not fly within 30 metres of any person during take-off or landing.

 BMFA NOTE.  The CAA are primarily concerned with models equipped with cameras, video equipment etc. that have the potential to be used for surveillance purposes, either visual or electronic. It should also be noted that the above legislation (articles 94 and 95) does NOT prohibit you from flying a camera or video equipped model for recreational purposes. The person in charge of the model must retain direct visual contact with the model (Article 94) and there are some restrictions as to where you can fly (Article 95). Probably the most important of these restrictions are the limits of not flying within 50 metres of any person or 30 metres from any person during take off and landing.

Please note that the collection of images of identifiable individuals, even inadvertently, when using a camera mounted on a small unmanned aircraft may be subject to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). GDPR contains requirements concerning the collection, storage and use of such images. Small unmanned aircraft operators should ensure they are complying with any applicable requirements or exemptions. Further information about the GDPR can be obtained from the Information Commissioners Office website: www.ico.org.uk.

The Practical Application

As ever a little common sense goes a long way towards interpreting and complying with the law.

The primary aim of the Air Navigation Order is to prevent uninvolved members of the public and full size aviation from being endangered.  For camera equipped aircraft, the law also takes into account privacy issues.

Aerial Work or Sport & Recreation?

Another primary consideration is the purpose of the flight.  The flying of a model aircraft (even with a camera on board) is recognised as a ‘sporting and recreational’ activity by the CAA and is also covered under the terms of the insurance provided as part of the BMFA membership package (provided that the activity is lawful).

However, where a flight is made for payment or the purpose is in any way commercial (not for the purpose of ‘sport and recreation’), then it becomes classed as aerial work and requires a direct permission from the CAA in order to take place lawfully.  Further details can be obtained at www.caa.co.uk.

It is important to note that “aerial work” is an entirely separate activity to ‘model flying’ and as such it must be insured under the terms of an appropriate commercial insurance policy.  The standard insurance policy provided to BMFA members does not cover “aerial work”.

Flying Locations

We receive regular queries regarding appropriate flying locations for small unmanned aircraft, especially multi-rotors.

Whilst the overall considerations are the same as for any other model aircraft, there is no doubt that multi-rotors open up new areas for flying due to their ability to operate in relatively small spaces.  However, this does mean that careful consideration is required before flying in order to remain lawful.

If intending to fly on private land then the permission of the landowner should be sought, if flying on public land such as a park or open access site then you must ensure that there are no bylaws in place specifically prohibiting or restricting model flying.

The other main consideration is the overall suitability of the location for the activity, and that all flying can take place in compliance with the primary “endangering” provisions of the ANO (Articles 240 and 241) and also in accordance with the distances set out in Article 95 above.

Insurance

Whilst it is not a legal requirement to be insured to fly a model aircraft or multi-rotor (below 20Kg) it is strongly advised nonetheless, to ensure that you are adequately covered for third party claims should you be involved in an incident resulting in injury to a third party or damage to their property. One of the benefits provided as part of BMFA membership is liability cover up to £25 million.

In summary

When flying any small unmanned aircraft, it is the pilot’s responsibility to familiarise themselves with the legal requirements relating to their chosen activity and to ensure that they operate safely within them.  Failure to do so could result in prosecution by the Civil Aviation Authority and a significant fine!

  • Be familiar with the legal requirements relating to your chosen activity.
  • Do not endanger person or property.
  • Ensure that the proposed flying location is appropriate and safe.
  • Maintain line of sight for the purposes of control at all times (see CAA Exemption for specific details of FPV flight permissions).
  • Charging for flights renders the activity Aerial Work.
  • Do not constitute a nuisance.
  • Do not invade privacy.
  • Ensure that appropriate liability insurance cover is in place to protect you in the event of an incident leading to a claim against you.