UK Drone Rules Explained (Updated for 2021)

15th January 2021 No comments
2021 Drone Rules Explained

Did you know that the UK’s drone rules changed on the 31st December 2020? If not, you do now!

Given the timing, you might be thinking that these changes are a result of Brexit. But these rules actually bring the UK in line with new aviation rules that have been introduced across many European countries recently.

What’s Changed?

Previously, the rules you had to follow depended on whether you were flying a drone commercially or not. 

If you were flying commercially, you needed a Permission for Commercial Operation from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). This involved going on a training course, preparing an Operations Manual and getting annual approval from the CAA. (We got our PfCO in 2016!)

This system made sense in principle, but sometimes it was hard to tell if a flight was “commercial” or not. 

For example, let’s say you flew your drone recreationally and took some photos. If you later gave those photos to a business who used them on their website, but you weren’t paid, was that a commercial flight? Arguably yes. The business received commercial benefit from it. (And some illegal operators tried to get around the rules on this basis.)

Another tricky area for photographers and videographers was publishing photos and videos from recreational flights on social media. Even if they weren’t paid for the flight, there’s still commercial benefit in sharing images on a professional portfolio.

As of December 31st 2020, why you’re flying is no longer important. The new rules are about how you’re flying. In our view, this is far clearer!

The New Rules

Flight Categories

Under the new rules, drone flights are now defined by three categories:

  • Open
  • Certified
  • Specific

The vast majority of drone flights will fall within the “Open” category. All of our flights for commercial videography and photography will, for sure. (At least with the types of drones we currently use at Southpoint Films.)

Flights with very large, very heavy drones (over 4kg) might fall into other categories. But generally, if a flight falls into another category, it’s probably because it needs special approval from the CAA. Think routine, high volume drone flights, like for delivering parcels to people’s homes.

“Open” Category Subcategories

Within the “Open” categories are three subcategories:

  • A1 – Fly ‘over’ people
  • A2 – Fly ‘close to’ to people
  • A3 – Fly ‘far from’ people

Each of these subcategories comes with its own set of rules and limitations. But there are some general, universal rules that include:

  • All drones must be flown safely, so as not to endanger others. This involves keeping a safe distance from people who aren’t involved with the flight. It also requires not flying over assemblies or groups.
  • A drone should never be flown within a “No Fly Zone” without explicit permission. A “No Fly Zone” is typically the airspace of an airport, but could include other sensitive areas.
  • Drones mustn’t be flown higher than 400ft (120m) from the nearest point of the Earth. (With an exception for tall buildings.)
  • The operator must be able to see the drone and maintain visual line of sight at all times. There are some exceptions, but this is largely true.
  • All operators need to register for a Flyer ID with the CAA and take an online safety test. This ID number needs to be displayed on the drone. 
  • Operators need permission from the owner of the land they’re going to take off from. You mustn’t trespass on private property or break local bylaws in connection to flying a drone.

These rules cover all drone operations in the “Open” category. However, as you probably guessed, there are different rules and restrictions for each subcategory.

A3 – Fly ‘Far From’ People

This is the default subcategory for anyone who flies a drone. In addition to the rules above, flights in the A3 subcategory must remain 150 metres away from built up areas. 

A “built up area” is anything from a city centre to a tiny village. So unless you plan to fly your drone in large, rural areas, this subcategory isn’t very useful for most drone operators.

There’s no certificate or qualification needed for this subcategory. Anybody can fly a drone for any purpose within these rules.

One important thing to note is that any drone made before these new regulations came into effect (or which don’t meet the new drone standards) will be automatically limited to this subcategory in 2023.

A2 – Fly ‘Close To’ People

The A2 subcategory allows drone pilots to fly within built up areas. There are still some limitations, but far fewer than the A3 subcategory.

  • The drone must remain 50m, 30m or 5m away from people who aren’t involved with the flight. This distance depends on the type of drone used and the safety options it has. Right now it’s a 50m distance for all drones currently on the market.
  • A drone mustn’t be flown over people who aren’t involved with the flight, at any height.
  • This subcategory only applies to drones with a weight of up to 4kg.
  • It requires the pilot to have an A2 Certificate of Competency.

As corporate video producers, this is the subcategory that’s most appealing to us. The good news is that our pilots already have their A2 Certificates of Competency and can start working within these new rules.

A1 – Fly ‘Over’ People

This subcategory only applies to drones that weigh under 250g. (And, until 2023, drones which weigh under 500g but were built before the new rules came into effect.)

This subcategory allows an operator to do everything described above, while also allowing them to fly the drone over people who aren’t involved in the flight. That said, drones still can’t be flown over assemblies or groups.

There’s no certificate or qualification needed for this subcategory either. So anybody can buy a drone that fits this criteria and start flying within these rules.

Still Following?

After first hearing about them, we found the new rules to be quite confusing. But after going through them a few times, they’re actually a huge improvement over the old system. There’s far less ambiguity and, surprisingly, a lot more flexibility. (I thought that drone rules would get tougher this decade.)

Things To Get Excited About

There are some great benefits and changes here, such as:

  • For flights in the “Open” category, the barrier to entry is far lower for new pilots. You only need a certificate if you want to fly in the A2 subcategory. You can fly in the other subcategories – even commercially – without a certificate.
  • Did we mention that the A2 certificates are valid for five years? No more annual submissions to the CAA – which came with an annual cost too.
  • Unlike the PfCO system, under the “Open” category there’s no need to maintain an operations manual. Ours was 40+ pages, and was purely a regurgitation of the rules. Under the new “Open” category you simply follow the rules as they’re presented.
  • If you want to do something that’s not covered by the “Open” category, the “Certified” and “Specific” categories still provide a lot of flexibility. These work more like the traditional PfCO system. You can get permission to use heavier drones or reduce your safe distances if needed.
  • There’s no longer a requirement to keep a safe distance from property. Although operators should still operate safely, under the old rules a drone had to stay a certain distance from buildings, vehicles and vessels as well as people. Now the only requirement is to keep a safe distance from people.
  • There’s a new provision for flying above buildings. As standard, a drone can only fly 400ft (120m) above the Earth. However, if a building is taller than this, a drone can be flown 15m above the building. In theory, you could fly a drone 15m above The Shard within the new rules. Awesome!
  • The unification of the rules across European countries will make it easier to fly in other European countries. It’s understood that any qualifications from your parent state will be honoured in any country using the same system.

All in all, there’s a huge amount to be excited about here!

Things That Aren’t As good

There are a couple of downsides, of course.  Before, the safe distance was a “bubble”. If the safe distance was 50m, you could fly over uninvolved people at a height of 50m within the rules. Now you can’t fly over uninvolved people at all unless flying within the limited A1 subcategory.

Likewise, the inability to fly over assemblies and groups – which could be as few as 2 people – could make life difficult in some scenarios.

And, selfishly, the fact that it’s much easier to fly a drone commercially is going to make it much easier for our competitors to start getting aerial footage legally. Darn it!

(I’m joking of course. I genuinely believe that if it’s easier for people to capture aerial content, there’ll be a much higher demand for aerial content. A rising tide floats all boats, after all.)

But Overall…

There’s an overwhelming amount to celebrate in the new rules. While they’re fundamentally similar to the rules that came before, there’s a lot to look forward to. Specifically, when drones with new safety features hit the market, our safety distance can be as little as 5m. That’s a game changer for using drones in a corporate videography and photography context.

Rowan Johnson flying a drone at a new business development for Readie Construction

Interested In Aerial Videography Or Photography For Your Business?

At Southpoint Films, we’ve been flying drones commercially since 2016. As longtime PfCO holders, and now with A2 Certificate of Competences, we’re ready to capture stunning aerial video and photos for your business.

Want more information? Get in touch!

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