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Drone Law in the UK

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Ines Chu

Section Editor for Criminal Law


While drones are regarded as the cool, high-tech Christmas gift, the Civil Aviation Authority that is responsible to keep everybody safe on the ground and in the air has implemented tighter rules for drone enthusiasts. It is important to be aware of the criteria for registration and the increased attention now being paid to drones. This is a potential result of the Heathrow Drone incident[1], which took place in December 2018 when 140,000 individuals were left stranded when flights were cancelled due to an unwelcome drone in commercial airspace.

Definition of a “drone”

The use of unmanned and model aircraft, including drones, is governed by the Civil Aviation Authority ('CAA'). A drone is known as a remotely piloted and unmanned aerial vehicle. There are significant dangers while flying a drone, including the likelihood of colliding with people, buildings and aircraft, interfering with airports, and privacy concerns in the case of camera-operated drones. However fun it is to keep up with new technologies, it is now important to pass a simple theory test and get an Operat for drone flyers over 250 g (which applies to children as well). It is now mandatory to pass a simple theory test to get an Operator ID, or face paying up to a fine of £ 1,000. Drones marketed as a toy or if flying indoors are generally not subjected to these requirements but consumers should still be advised to check the packaging carefully.


Drones come with legal formalities that could cause difficulties for operators if they are not followed. The Air Navigation Order 2016[2], which uses the term 'small unmanned aircraft' in place of 'drone' and imposes limits on pilots, including height and visibility, is the primary piece of legislation governing the operation of drones. Introduction of new rules on 31 December 2020 is currently consistent with other European countries and states that a person must apply for pre-operation approval based on flying risk - where you are flying, proximity to other people, and drone size and weight. Currently, there are three categories of drones:

  1. Open category: low-risk operations - do not require authorisation, but are subject to strict operational restrictions.

  2. Specific category: medium-risk operations - operators are expected on the basis of a standardized risk assessment or a specific scenario to have permission from the national aviation authority.

  3. Certified category: high-risk operations - traditional rules of aviation apply.

For someone flying a drone, the CAA's 'Drone and Model Aircraft Code'[3] ('The Code') also sets rules and regulations. The Code states that flying a drone or model aircraft without having the requisite identification is contrary to the law (see below). Should an individual violate the Code, they may be fined for breaching the law and sent to jail in the most serious cases. Registration under the CAA's Drone and Model Aircraft Registration and Education Program for Flyer and Operator IDs has become mandatory as of 30 November 2019 for drones weighing between 250g and 20kg. An official theory test must be passed in order to obtain a Flyer ID (this is free and reversible every five years and you must be 13 years of age to obtain one by yourself) and enables low risk flying (further authorisation is needed for advanced flying). If one owns or is responsible for a drone, an operator ID is required and this ID must be clearly labeled on the drone (the fee is £ 9, valid for one year and you must be 18 or over). The Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill[4] (currently on its way through parliament) provides the police with additional powers relating to drone use, including the requirement to ground an unmanned aircraft; to access and search premises under warrant for some offences where a drone is involved; as well as the implementation of the above legislation. Moreover, they are allowed to stop and search for particular drone-related violations; to use counter-drone technology and the use of drones near prisons; and to use on-the-spot penalties (up to £ 1,000) for offenses such as failing to show that they have the necessary permits and exemptions if their aircraft is found to be flying too high or too close to houses, or failing to prove competence or registration.

In trading, defense and many other areas of our lives, drones will undoubtedly have a growing role. Several large corporations, like Rolls Royce, are using them to make their businesses more successful. PWC has predicted that by 2030, there will be 76,000 drones in the UK sky. Their website states that the CAA's constraints in 2020 will be excluded in Christmas time in order to deliver packages safely and on schedule. Therefore, the regulations are now in effect and drone enthusiasts should keep certain rules and regulations in mind before flying drones, as one would be penalised harshly if such regulations are violated.


[1] “Heathrow Airport Drone Investigated by Police and Military” (BBC NewsJanuary 9, 2019) <> accessed February 25, 2021 [2]The 2020 amendment to the Air Navigation Order 2016 - Guidance for Unmanned Aircraft users <> [3] “The Drone and Model Aircraft Code” (The Drone and Model Aircraft Code | UK Civil Aviation Authority) <> accessed February 25, 2021 [4] “Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [HL] 2019-21” (Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [HL] 2019-21 - UK Parliament) <> accessed February 25, 2021

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