If you're one of the lucky people who will find a drone under the Christmas Tree this year - congratulations. You'll be one of a growing number of people who are privileged to enjoy flying an exciting piece of technology that should bring hours of enjoyment.
However, with the privilege comes responsibility - a responsibility to fly it safely. Unfortunately that means doing boring things like reading instructions carefully and heeding advice from people who know about these things like the Civil Aviation Authority.
Every so often a drone story hits the headlines that should make people stop and think. Recently there was the tragic tale of 16 month old Oscar Webb from Worcestershire who lost an eye when a drone being flown by a family friend clipped a tree and flew out of control into the child's face.
Before that was the story of the man from Nottingham who flew his copter over Premier League football stadiums, the House of Parliament and Buckingham Palace.
Nigel Wilson, a 42 year old security guard, was fined £1,800 plus £600 costs and was banned from owning or using a drone. At Westminster Magistrates Court he had pleaded guilty to four charges of flying small unmanned surveillance aircraft over a congested area and five of not maintaining direct, unaided visual contact with a small unmanned surveillance aircraft.
Then there the frequent tales of airline pilots spotting drones flying close to them as they are taking off or landing at airports. Who wants their drone to be responsible for an airliner crash?
If people fly their drones straight out of the box without finding out how to fly safely then the number of accidents or scare stories is only going to rise. You only have to look on YouTube to see how reckless and irresponsible some pilots are. Just because a drone manufacturer tells you it can be flown up to 2 miles away or as high as 2,000 feet doesn't mean that you can try to beat those figures and then boast about it.
UK regulations say that you have to be able to see your drone at all times and that you can't fly it further than 500 metres away or higher than 400 feet. So if your craft disappears behind a tree just 30 metres away that's illegal. And, take it from me, you'll be struggling to see a Phantom 3 that's 500 metres away. You also can't just rely on video pictures of what your drone's camera is seeing - you must be able to see the drone.
The height restriction of 400 ft is there for a very good reason too. In general terms other forms of aviation cannot fly below 500 ft so there'll be a 100 ft gap between them and your drone if you stick to the 400 ft rule.
The boring but sensible rules don't stop there and the CAA has a leaflet that explains all of them. You may have one in the box with your drone so read it carefully. If you haven't then read it here:
All of those points are important and they are there for a reason. You are legally responsible for flying safely. Don't forget that if you plan to use your drone for any commercial work you must have training from a National Qualified Entity like Heliguy and then obtain a Permission for Aerial Work from the CAA.
You could also fall foul of privacy laws even if you accidentally film or photograph something. The Information Commissioner's Office has come up with its own set of sensible guidelines for drone pilots:
Let people know before you start recording. In some scenarios this is going to be quite easy because you will know everyone within close view (for example, if you are taking a group photo at a family barbeque). In other scenarios, for example at the beach or the park, this is going to be much more difficult so you’ll need to apply some common sense before you start.
Consider your surroundings. If you are recording images beyond your home, a drone may intrude on the privacy of others where they expect their privacy to be respected (such as in their back garden). It is unlikely that you would want a drone to be hovering outside your window so be considerate to others and don’t hover outside theirs.
Get to know your camera first. It is a good idea to get to know the capability of your camera in a controlled situation to understand how it works. What is the quality of the image? How powerful is the zoom? Can you control when it starts and stops recording? Drone cameras are capable of taking unusual and creative pictures from original vantage points. Knowing the capabilities of your camera will help you to reduce the risk of privacy intrusion.
Plan your flight. Your drone’s battery life is likely to be short. By understanding its capabilities you will be able to make best use of its flight and it will be easier to plan how to avoid invading the privacy of other people. For example, it may be more privacy-friendly to launch from a different location rather than flying close to other people or their property.
Keep you and your drone in view. You won’t want to lose it, and if you are clearly visible then it will be easier for members of the public to know that you are the person responsible for the drone.
Think before sharing. Once your drone has landed, think carefully about who’s going to be looking at the images, particularly if you’re thinking about posting them on social media. Avoid sharing images that could have unfair or harmful consequences. Apply the same common sense approach that you would with images or video recorded by a smartphone or digital camera.
Keep the images safe. The images you have taken may be saved on an SD card or USB drive attached to the drone or the camera. If they are not necessary, then don’t keep them. If you do want to keep them, then make sure they are kept in a safe place.
There's a lot to take in but it's worth taking the time to get it right. Europe-wide regulations are likely to be just around the corner. The police are much more clued up on drone law and the public, because of high profile incidents, are much more aware. The United States have just announced a registration scheme for drones and there have already been calls for a similar scheme in the UK. If that happens and your drone is involved in an incident it could be traced back to you. You have been warned.
We hope you enjoy your exciting new drone but please fly considerately and, above all, safely.