Unsafe Drone Flying: Who to Tell and What the Rules Are

Unsafe Drone Flying: Who to Tell and What the Rules Are

Unsafe drone flying and privacy. What you need to know if you're a hobby pilot, a commercial operator or a member of the public.

Last updated: Mar 11, 2021

9 minute read

Do you fly your drone safely? Honestly? Do you know the rules for safe flying and obey them or do you know the rules and choose to ignore them when it suits you? Or maybe you're like the joker that our Sales Manager Scott saw at a Ford car enthusiasts' event in Leeds at the weekend. He was flying his Phantom 3 between 5 and 10 feet above the heads of the crowds and the cars. But it gets worse. He was also flying underneath and BETWEEN high voltage power lines. What a wally! While you can fly a drone in the UK without a drone license - it's always worth following the regulations and staying safe! DJI Phantom 3 Professional When our public spirited Scott approached the pilot to explain to him the error of his ways ... he didn't get a black eye but he did get an amazing display of ignorance. Not only did he not know that there were rules governing the use of drones or what the Civil Aviation Authority is, he also didn't see what the problem was. It's frightening really. It's this sort of behaviour that's causing consternation  in the drone industry and not helping with the public's perception of drones.


The recent case of the man from Nottingham who flew his copter over Premier League football stadiums, the House of Parliament and Buckingham Palace was gobsmacking. 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. The prosecution offered no evidence for eight other charges. Nigel Wilson Nigel Wilson, fined £1,800 for drone safety offences Wilson posted videos on YouTube showing Premier League, Champions League and Championship  football matches shot from above the stadiums. At Liverpool's ground Wilson flew his drone close to mounted police officers who were controlling spectators outside Anfield and startled the horses.

"Cool video, dude!"

His London videos showed the Queen Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, Europe's tallest building the Shard, HMS Belfast on the Thames and closeup shots of Big Ben. All this happened despite the police warning him and confiscating drones and despite visitors to his YouTube channel cautioning him too. And if you're a regular visitor to YouTube you'll know that he's not the only one who's flying dangerous missions. There are countless examples of unsafe drone flying with pilots then showing off their work online in the hope that someone will comment "Cool video dude!" Big Ben Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster in London

What can you do and who can you tell?

Drone flying is still in its infancy (relatively) and the trouble is that many pilots, most of the public and quite a few police officers don't know or understand what the regulations are. Even if they do, they don't know who to report it to. And the Civil Aviation Authority, which is responsible for aviation safety, has recently agreed to a shift of responsibility. "Our enforcement strategy has recently changed to better reflect the balance of capabilities between the CAA and local Police services," the CAA says.  "The Police often have greater resources, response times and powers of investigation than the CAA.  To support this, the CAA has now agreed with the Police that they will take the lead in dealing with drone misuse incidents, particularly at public events, that may contravene aviation safety legislation or other relevant criminal legislation." The CAA recommends that any such incidents are reported to the police, however flights that might be endangering aircraft or are taking place at or near an airport should also be reported to the CAA.

The rules

So what are the regulations and when should the alarm bells ring for the pilot, the public or the police? As a general rule, unless the drone pilot has permission from the CAA, he or she should not be flying within 150m of a ‘congested area’ (e.g. town or city) or at a public event.  ‘Congested area’ in relation to a city, town or settlement, means any area which is substantially used for residential, industrial, commercial or recreational purposes’. The pilot should not fly the drone beyond his or her line of sight. If you can't see it you shouldn't be flying it because it's dangerous. In any case it shouldn't be any further than 500 metres away or 120 metres altitude (400 feet). When the pilot does have permission from the CAA (a Permission for Aerial Work), flights are usually restricted to no closer than 50 metres from people, vehicles and structures that are not ‘under the control’ of the pilot.  Even if they are under the control of the pilot, the distance is only reduced to 30 metres. Flying directly overhead at any height is not usually permitted. You are also not allowed to fly closer than 150 metres from an open-air crowd of more than 1,000 people - just a tiny fraction of what you'd normally get at a Premier League game. These restrictions mean that the use of a drone in public places is limited and often not suitable or legal unless the operator has received the appropriate permission from the CAA. Flying at or near airports and in controlled airspace is also a serious concern. It only takes one airline pilot to report an air miss with a drone for it to be recycled in every news story about drones for at least a year. Manufacturers have tried to reduce the chances of that happening. DJI have introduced No Fly Zones to their software which prevents a drone taking off if it's too close to an airport and limits its height when its still within the airport's control area.


The other important issue to consider is privacy. While it's not a safety concern it does annoy the general public because there's the perception that drones are only used for spying. It's difficult to assure people that the wide-angle lens on most hobby and many commercially flown drones are far less capable of spying than a nosey photographer armed with a stepladder and a telephoto lens. However, the fact remains that any drone equipped with a camera can be covered by the Data Protection Act. Think of your drone's camera in exactly the way you would any other camera and that includes CCTV. When you're flying that wide-angle lens around don't forget that people on the ground don't know what your camera is capable of. They could assume that you've got an impressive zoom. They may not know that they are an unidentifiable speck in your video and probably think that you're spying into their garden or bedroom window. DJI Phantom 3 The Information Commissioner's Office, which polices the Data Protection Act and other privacy legislation, offers this advice on how to use your drone and your pictures sensibly:
  • 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.
That's all sensible advice. Another thing to bear in mind is that if you happen to capture something newsworthy with your drone, you can't sell it to the highest bidder, whether it's a TV station or a newspaper. That would count as commercial use. If you are an operator with a Permission for Aerial Work you would be able to sell your work. Quite a few amateur pilots and broadcasters got into trouble in recent years when they paid for aerial video of flood-hit areas of the UK.

Common sense safety

On top of all the regulations there is an element of common sense safety. For example, our friend at the car event in Leeds should've have thought that flying a radio controlled aircraft near high voltage power lines wasn't a good idea. Power lines and radio or mobile phone masts can disrupt and even overwhelm the radio signal and also block GPS satellite signals. The same goes for large, particularly metal structures like bridges. Animals can also produce unexpected dangers. Some will try to catch your drone, thinking it's a Frisbee, others will be panicked and could run out of control. There are plenty of other potential hazards but all it takes is a bit of thought about where you are planning to fly and some consideration for people around you before you throttle up. So drones in the UK are regulated even if you are a hobbyist. Licensed commercial operators who've been properly trained and tested are able to do more but they still have to fly safely and responsibly. If you're concerned that a drone is being flown dangerously or that its invading your privacy, talk to the pilot if you can without distracting him or her but preferably after the drone has landed. If that conversation doesn't ease you worries then you might want to consider contacting the police. If you're a pilot and want to know more about safe drone flying then the CAA's website is the best place to start. If you want to turn drone flying into a career you might want to consider training with heliguy™ for your PFAW, which is recognised by the CAA. Heliguy Training

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