How to fly a drone safely
By Oli McKean
Make sure you’re clued up on drone flying regulations and recommendations before you take to the sky
Flying a drone can be really fun, but it can also be dangerous. Here, we cover some of the most important things you need to know about flying your drone safely.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) sets out the rules and regulations for safe drone flying on its website. Here, we focus on the recommendations for flying a small drone weighing less than 20kg for recreational (not commercial) use in the UK.
It’s worth noting that you don’t currently need a licence to fly a drone recreationally in the UK. However, it’s important that you pay heed to the regulations – the legal responsibility for flying a drone lies with you, the user. Failure to fly responsibly could lead to a criminal prosecution.
Below, we cover the key aspects of safe flying. However, you should also make sure you’ve read the regulations in full on the CAA website (www.caa.co.uk/drones) and make sure you follow manufacturer instructions to fly your drone in the safest way.
It’s also not a bad idea to take some drone flying lessons. These should teach you how to fly safely and responsibly, and help you become more confident when controlling a drone.
Our tests have found brilliant drones that are simple to control, and others that we think you should avoid. Head to Best Buy drones to discover the high-flyers.
Setting up your drone for the first time
When you buy a drone, take some time to make sure you’ve set it up correctly and securely to aid safe flight.
It’s often quite simple to attach the propellers if they’re not already attached, and you often need to install the battery and sometimes download an app on your smartphone or tablet.
Make sure that you read any instruction manual in full, and check out all safety advice before taking to the sky. Safety information often comes in the box, but sometimes you’re directed to a website. We recommend that you read CAA regulations in full before your first flight.
Some drones are designed to be controlled via an app on a smartphone or tablet. Others are designed to be complemented by an app to give you more functions. For this reason, it’s worth making sure that you’re buying a drone that works with your current line-up of gadgets.
Key principles of safe drone flying
The CAA has a ‘drone code’ that helpfully lays out the key principles of safe flying. These include:
- Don’t fly near airports or airfields It’s a criminal offence if your drone endangers the safety of an aircraft, and you could face a prison sentence of five years.
- Stay below 400 feet (or 120 metres) This makes it less likely that your drone will collide with other aircraft.
- Observe your drone at all times It’s really important that you keep your drone in your line of sight for all the time it’s in the air.
- Stay 150 feet (or 50 metres) away from people and property You should also keep 500 feet (150 metres) away from crowds of people and built-up areas – and don’t fly over them.
- Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions These should help you fly your drone in the safest possible way.
- Remember that legal responsibility lies with you If you don’t fly a drone responsibly, you could face criminal prosecution.
It’s also imperative that you don’t endanger anyone or anything with your drone, which includes anything you drop from it.
The official drone code is hosted on dronesafe.uk
Are the rules different if I’m using a camera-equipped drone?
Most of the drones we’ve tested have cameras, to let you take photos and videos while flying. However, there are some extra rules and regulations around this, particularly in relation to data protection.
If a drone has a camera, its use might be covered by the Data Protection Act 1998. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has provided guidance on how to use a drone responsibly:
- Let others know before you start recording.
- Keep images safe.
- Think before sharing: if you plan to share images on social media, make sure that they aren’t likely to have an unfair or harmful consequence on other people.
There are other rules to consider to ensure you comply with data protection law, so do check the ICO website if you're unsure.
Many camera drones let you watch a ‘live view’ of the image being captured by the camera lens, either on a smartphone/tablet, through goggles or on the remote control itself. However, as discussed above, the law requires that you must keep your drone in your direct vision at all times while you’re flying it – which is much harder to do if you’re watching a screen. If you want to watch live view legally, you’ll need to get approval from the CAA.
Where can I fly my drone?
It goes without saying that you can’t fly your drone everywhere. Some of these key limitations are listed above – never near an airport, for instance.
But in the UK, there are some extra and particular limitations on where you can fly aircraft, including drones.
It would be nigh-on impossible to list all of those places here. And even if we did, temporary restrictions often come into place for special events.
Permanently prohibited, restricted or danger areas can be found on ‘Visual Flight Rules’ (VFR) flight charts, which you can buy online. You could also use skydemonlight.com which is a free but limited version of this software, or the Drone Assist app which comes from the National Air Traffic Services (NATS).
This will help you find out about no-go zones, which will include all of London’s Royal Parks.
To find out about temporary restrictions, you can find these on the Aeronautical Information Service (AIS) website.
Which safety features should I look out for when buying a drone?
When we test drones, we look at their suite of safety features. You can find out more about these by heading to our drone reviews.
Here are some of the safety features you might want to look out for:
- Return to home Many drones return to their take-off point if they lose contact with the remote control – whether that’s a physical control or smartphone app. You can also often command a drone to return via the remote control, and some will start to make their way back to you if the battery is running low. This feature should help give you peace of mind in case something goes wrong.
- Geofencing Many of the more expensive drones have built-in geofencing. This ultimately means that they shouldn’t let you fly in no-go zones. This might come in handy, but before each flight you should still check that you’re allowed to fly in that area.
- Sense and avoid/ Obstacle avoidance This is a rare feature, found mainly on expensive drones. With this feature, the drone should avoid knocking into other objects – but, again, you should take due care to limit this risk yourself.
Are drone regulations the same in all countries?
No – you’ll need to familiarise yourself with the regulations around drone flying if you’re planning to fly your drone while abroad.
What do I need to do if I’m flying a drone for commercial purposes?
You must obtain a Permission from the CAA if you want to use your drone for commercial use. This is defined as a flight being conducted for business purposes in return for specific remuneration or other form of valuable consideration.
To be granted this Permission, you’ll need to demonstrate a sufficient understanding of aviation theory (including airmanship, airspace, aviation law and good flying practice), pass a practical flight test, develop the basic procedures of the flights you want to do and then set these out in an operations manual.
What do I do if I see someone using a drone incorrectly?
If you see someone who’s using a drone in a way that contravenes the law, you should report it to the police. The CAA and the police have an agreement, whereby the police will lead on dealing with drone misuse incidents, particularly at public events.
On its website, the CAA highlights that its remit is limited to safety and does not include concerns over privacy or broadcast rights. These are covered by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).