Drones – Follow the Rules or Fall Foul of the Law

Written 20th April 2016 by Olliers Solicitors

Drones have seen a significant rise in popularity in recent years and as the technology becomes cheaper an increasing number of people have access to them.  A drone can be defined loosely as an unmanned aircraft or ship that can be controlled remotely and is usually distinguished from a remote control plane or helicopter by the presence of a camera.  

Are Drones Legal?

The legality of the use of drones in a civilian capacity has been in the headlines recently following the incident which saw a drone allegedly collide with a British Airways flight landing at Heathrow as well as the recent reports of drone activity around HMP Manchester ‘Strangeways’.  With this in mind this article will look at the way drones can be used, the laws governing their use and some of the recent prosecutions for the illegal use of them.

Drones have many uses including by the military for unmanned surveillance or bombing missions, as well for commercial purposes such as filming for television or promotional material and there have even been recent proposals to use them for home deliveries by companies such as Amazon. However the use of drones by individual hobbyists almost as a 21st century version of the remote control car is something which has seen a significant increase over the past few years.

Drones – The Legislation

Drones that weigh less than 20 kilograms can be used by anyone for non-commercial purposes with no need for a licence, but there are a set of rules that must be followed.

Obviously if people use drones to do things which are already illegal such as for voyeurism or in order to smuggle items into a prison, they are liable for prosecution. However there are also certain things that it is illegal to do with a drone that many people will not be aware of. The Civil Aviation Authority gives guidance and rules are set out by the Air Navigation Order and dictate that drone aircraft must not be flown:

  • over or within 150 metres of any congested area

  • over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons;

  • within 50 metres of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft

  • Within 50 metres of any person except during take-off or landing, and the aircraft must not be flown within 30 metres of any person except for the person in charge of the aircraft.

  • Within the line of sight of the person controlling it at all times.

Anybody who wishes to use a drone outside of these parameters or for commercial reasons or wishing to fly a drone weighing more than 20 kilos must first seek the approval of Civil Aviation Authority. Fail to do this and you could face criminal prosecution.   

Illegal Use of Drones

Below are two of the more high profile prosecutions for breaching the rules around flying drones:

CAA v Knowles 2014  – A man was fined £800 and ordered to pay costs of £3,500 at the Furness and District Magistrates’ Court after pleading guilty to flying a small unmanned surveillance aircraft within 50 metres of a structure. The structures in question were the Jubilee Bridge on the Walney Channel and a nuclear installation, the BAE System submarine-testing facility. This case was prosecuted by the Civil Aviation Authority.

R v Wilson 2015 – A man was fined a total of £1,800 for nine offences for flying a drone over and around Premier League football stadiums, parliament and Buckingham Palace. This was after he posted videos to YouTube showing views from heights of around 100 metres of Premier League, Champions League and Championship football matches. This was the first time a person has been prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service for using drones after a police-led operation.

Should I Use my Drone?

So without wanting to drone on about the issue,  now that the weather is finally nice enough to get that drone you got for Christmas out of the cupboard and into the skies, be careful.  If you don’t follow the rules you could find yourself facing a criminal record, a significant fine or even behind bars.  If you need any more tips watch this short video:


Olliers Solicitors – Specialist Criminal Defence Lawyers

Written by Alex Close-Claughton. Alex is an accredited police station representative and an integral member of our Crown Court Department with a particular specialism in the meticulous interrogation of telephone evidence in large-scale cases.

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