Drones – the ultimate or problematic Christmas gift?

21 January 2021

Drones are growing in their popularity and taking the crown as the cool, high-tech Christmas gift and why wouldn’t you want one? They are great fun and a rewarding hobby, but the Civil Aviation Authority’s mantra to keep everyone on the ground and in the air safe, has seen the implementation of stricter regulations for drone enthusiasts.

For the lucky ones who unwrapped a drone this Christmas, it is vital to be aware of the registration requirements and the heightened attention now being paid to drones. This being a possible consequence of the Heathrow Drone incident, which occurred in December 2018 where 140,000 people were left stranded when flights were cancelled due to an unwelcome drone in commercial airspace. 

What is a drone?

The Civil Aviation Authority (“CAA”) regulates the use of unmanned and model aircrafts, which include drones. A drone is recognised as a remotely piloted and unmanned aerial vehicle. They are available in all shapes and sizes and vary in price ranging from tens to thousands of pounds.
Obviously flying a drone is great fun whether you are a child or an adult and for budding photographers they are a must have to have your eyes in the sky and take aerial pictures.  When flying however, there are major risks including the potential to collide with people, buildings and aircraft, to interfere with airports and, in the case of camera operated drones, come across privacy issues. However fun it is to keep up with the hot new technology, for flyers of a drone over 250g (even if they are children) it is now essential to pass a basic theory test and obtain an Operator ID, or risk paying up to a £1,000 fine. Drones marketed as a toy or if flying indoors generally avoid these requirements (be sure to check the packaging carefully). 


Like puppies, a drone isn’t just for Christmas; they come with legal formalities where, should they not be followed, could create problems for operators. The primary piece of legislation overseeing the operation of drones is the Air Navigation Order 2016 which uses the term ‘small unmanned aircraft’ in favour of ‘drone’ and implements restrictions including height and visibility on the operators. New regulations introduced on 31 December 2020 now align UK law with other European countries and states that a person must apply for pre-operation approval based on the risk of flying - where you fly, proximity to other people and the size and weight of your drone. Drones are now classified in three ways: 
Open Category: Low-risk operations - do not require any authorisation, but will be subject to strict operational limitations.
Specific Category: Medium-risk operations – operators are required to have authorisation from the national aviation authority on the basis of a standardised risk assessment or a specific scenario.
Certified Category: High-risk operations - classical aviation rules apply.
The CAA’s ‘Drone and Model Aircraft Code’ (“The Code”) also sets out rules and regulations for anyone operating a drone. The Code states that it is against the law to fly a drone or model aircraft without having the required identifications (see below). Should a person breach the Code they can be fined for breaking the law and in the most serious cases, sent to prison. 
Registration under the Drone and Model Aircraft Registration and Education Service for Flyer and Operator IDs, introduced by the CAA, became mandatory for drones weighing between 250g and 20kg from 30 November 2019. To obtain a Flyer ID an official theory test must be passed (this is free and renewable every five years and you must be 13 years of age to obtain one by yourself) and allows low risk flying (further authorisation is needed for advanced flying); an Operator ID is required if you own or are responsible for a drone and this ID must be labelled clearly on the drone (the fee is £9, valid for one year and you must be 18 or over). 
As well as the introduction of the above regulations, the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill (currently on its journey through parliament) provides the police with new powers relating to drone use, including the requirement for an unmanned aircraft to be grounded; to enter and search premises under warrant for certain offences where a drone is involved; to stop and search for specific drone related offences; to use counter-drone technology and the use of drones near prisons and to use on the spot fines (up to £1,000) for offences such as failing to provide evidence that they have the correct permissions and exemptions if found to be flying their device too high or too close to buildings, or failing to provide evidence of competency or registration.
Drones will undoubtedly have an increasing role in commerce, defence and several other areas of our lives. Several large companies are using them to make their businesses more efficient including Rolls Royce. PWC have estimated that there could be 76,000 drones across the UK skies by 2030. In a rare demonstration of humour by the CAA, their website notes that Father Christmas was exempt from restrictions by the CAA in 2020 in order to deliver parcels safely and on time. But those that were gifted a drone this Christmas, don’t be caught out, consider those rules and regulations before flying your drone, otherwise you may be subject to harsh penalties. 

Further Information

For further information on the issues raised in this blog post, please contact a member of our criminal litigation team.


About The Authors

Sandra Paul is a partner in our criminal litigation team. She has a wealth of experience in criminal and related litigation. The majority of her work concerns defending allegations of sexual misconduct. She works with clients in the UK and abroad, including allegations following the #MeToo campaign.

She has a particular passion and aptitude for working with children and young adults, navigating them safely through the youth justice system. Youth crime is a specialist area in which Sandra is a leader in her field.
Drawing on her advocacy experience, Sandra is particularly accomplished in preparing witnesses to give an account or evidence in settings ranging from court proceedings through to internal and external investigations or inquiries.  Sandra’s career has included discreet representation of high profile individuals including politicians, bankers, music, sports and media personalities.
This blog was also co-authored by Emma Wardall, Paralegal, in the Criminal Litigation Department. Emma has been with the team for 9 years and is an associate member of CILEX.


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