Drones – the Key Legal Issues

Since the weather is absolute crap over here in the UK I decided to do a bit of research when it comes to using drones in the UK.

Flying in congested areas

There are restrictions on operating drones in congested areas, at certain heights or directly over people and vehicles. UK rules say that drones of specific weights must not be flown within 50m of people, structures or vehicles. Additionally, drones cannot fly within 150m of a congested area. Certain permissions must be obtained before the drone can be flown commercially.

What they fail to say is that the restriction is only 30 metres when the drone takes off or lands and doesn’t include the operator of the drone or the person under drone operator’s control (i.e. the person helping you out)


European law requires certain operators of drones to purchase third party liability insurance. Insurance like this will need to be sought from specialist brokers. Failure to obtain suitable insurance cover may prove costly in the event of an accident.

I will go further than that and say just get a drone third party liability insurance. This will not only protect you in case you cause a damage with your drone, but will help present you as a responsible drone operator. The police might ask what would you do if your drone damages something your drone is flying over, showing them that you have an insurance would be a very good answer and the police will have very little to go on.

Data protection and privacy

Drone use may infringe the right to privacy and private life if the drone is flown intrusively. Breach of privacy is now potentially a very expensive civil wrong. The UK Data Protection Act and similar laws around Europe will also apply if the drone can take images or videos of identifiable individuals.

Again, invasion of privacy is only a civil wrong. In addition, you are free to film absolutely anything on public property. On public property individuals should have no expectation of privacy, that’s why we have so many CCTV cameras. Obviously peaking into someone’s back garden would be considered an invasion of privacy. But again, factors like how high the drone was flying and what can actually be seen would have to be taken into account. You can already see pretty much everything on Google Earth.

Trespass and nuisance

Drones pose complex questions over the torts (legal wrongs) of trespass and nuisance. An person may be able to bring a claim if their right to quiet enjoyment of their property is violated by an intentional or reckless act of a drone user.

This is a strange one because trespass is normally applied to a person. In addition a simple trespass is not a criminal offence but a civil wrong. The owner of the land does not own the airspace above his property. As long as the object is not flying low enough to interfere with normal enjoyment of the land.

There is also a catch 21 in the current regulations. To begin with, you cannot fly your drone higher than 400 ft.

Then there is this in the common law – The higher stratum

This is the airspace which exists above the height which is reasonably acceptable and necessary for the ordinary use and enjoyment of the land by its owner – around 500 to 1000 feet above roof space level (Section 76 Civil Aviation Act 1982). Landowners have no greater rights to this airspace than any other member of the public.

But hey, I think 400 ft and 500 ft is close enough, and if you are flying at 400 ft you are unlikely to interfere with the enjoyment of the land by its owner.

Update: actually you CAN fly higher than 400 ft (at least for now), there is nothing in ANO that says that you cannot exceed 400 ft, it only says that the drone has to be within sight of the operator. The 400 ft is only a guideline


If a drone user fails to fly the drone in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, or in an irresponsible way, and injures someone or causes damage as a result they could find themselves the target of a damages claim.

That’s another reason to get insurance. Plus we already have laws that protect us against criminal damage. Why do we need essentially another one specifically for drones?


The use of drones to capture images over private property could lead to a claim for breach confidentiality, especially if a business’s trade secrets are revealed.

This is very unlikely if you are simply flying over someone’s field. Again you can see pretty much anything on Google Earth.

Criminal offences

If a drone pilot breaks aviation rules, for example by flying recklessly or too close to a person or their property, then they could be committing a criminal offence and may be prosecuted. In 2014, Robert Knowles became the first person to be successfully prosecuted for the dangerous and illegal flying of an unmanned aircraft.

You really have to do something really stupid, like flying very close to an airport, purposefully hitting a person. Well the list of stupid things is endless, so if you use your common sense you should be fine.

Police and the CAA

Currently the police cannot enforce anything outlined in the CAA guidelines. The most they can do is ask you to land the drone. They cannot touch it or view the footage. Unless of course you have committed a criminal offence.

Their own internal guidelines state:

Officers should not attempt to take control of the system UNLESS EXCEPTIONAL CIRCUMSTANCES EXIST, such as a threat to life or injury or damage to property.

Note that there are no specific powers of arrest or seizure in relation to offences committed under the Air Navigation Order.

What can I do to stop a drone once it is in the air?

Currently, the only option open to you is to instruct the pilot to land the drone.

Can I seize UAS that are used to commit offences?

There is no power of seizure of the Air Navigation Order 2009, but you could consider s. 19 PACE 1984 or common law powers. If a UAS is used in other offences, or you arrest people, you could consider using powers of seizure under those statutes.

Can I view footage taken by drone?

No, not unless you reasonably suspect the person is a terrorist in which case you can use powers under S43 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

Here is the link to the original document

Proposed Regulations

The government proposes mandatory registration and safety courses for drone users. They also mention some app for planning your flight.

Do we really expect criminals to register their drones and follow any of the laws?

My next question is who is going to administer the courses and how much are they going to cost? Obviously those who will provide the courses will be making money.

Police are going to be given more powers to ground drones and to take some parts from the drone as evidence (I presume they mean the SD Cards).

I’m sure the police will obide by the law and will never abuse their powers. Just like with Anti-Terrorism Act of 2000 (just Google “police abuse terrorism act 2000” and see how many results will come up.)

I think we going to end up with police, drunk on new powers, picking on innocent hobbyists over banalities, such as whether a drone was above or below 400 ft. The criminals and idiots will carry on doing what they already do.

People will think twice before buying a drone: “shall I buy a drone and go through all the hassle of registering the drone, taking safety courses or shall I just get myself a games console”.

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