What are you ‘droning’ on about?

By Matt Jaggar 

If I was to guess what the first thing that springs to your mind when you think of drones, it would be Gatwick Airport. The scenes of disruption at the West Sussex airport on the 19th December 2018 were across all news outlets after it was suggested that a rogue drone pilot flew his unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over the flight restriction zone that is designed to keep all airports safe. This was never proven, but sticks in many people’s memories. 

It’s pretty clear to most people that flying near an airport is a bad idea, but as drones become more popular as a hobby or a toy for children, there are some things you need to know before taking flight.

There are many uses for drones including film and photography, surveying and in some parts of the world, delivering beer to golf course guests. They vary in shape and size from small toys no bigger than your iPhone all the way up to the size of a small car that can carry human passengers. 

But if you are thinking about purchasing one as a gift for a child this Christmas, or as a new hobby to take you into 2021 here are some of the most important rules you need to know, and some tips and tricks to get you started.

Before you start

There are a few things to consider before buying a drone, but one of the most important is how heavy the UAV you are buying is. If it weighs less than 250g, such as the DJI Mini models, you are exempt from some of the rules around registering your drone with the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority). Drones between 250g & 20kg flying outdoors in the UK must register their drone via the CAA’s website. More on this later…

The Drone Code

The drone code offers you all the advice and information you need to be able to fly a drone safely and legally in the UK. It is put together by the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) setting out your responsibilities as a drone pilot. The downloadable PDF contains the information about the safe separation distances, maximum heights and IDs that must be displayed whilst flying your drone.

Drone Registration

As mentioned above, if you intend to fly a drone between 250g & 20kg you must first register it with the CAA. In order to do this you have to take a theory test to prove you have the knowledge to fly safely and legally. They will then provide you with a flyer ID. Anyone over the age of 13 who wishes to fly your drone must get their own flyer ID. If the drone you are flying belongs to you then you also need an Operator ID, which can be granted to anyone with a flyer ID over the age of 18. A flyer ID is free to obtain and lasts for 5 years. An operator ID costs £9 and lasts 12 months. Once you have an operator ID this has to be displayed on the drone at all times. 

Planning where to fly

It’s always a good idea to plan your flight before starting up the motors and taking to the skies. You will need somewhere with lots of open space, where you can be clear of anything that might get in the way. Typically this means flying at your local park in the peak summer months is off the cards. The drone code sets out some things to consider when choosing where to fly. At take-off and landing you need to be at least 50m away from other people, property and animals. 

The CAA uses the term ‘congested areas’ to mean any built up area such as housing estates, town centres or other places where people congregate, and you cannot fly within 150m of these. So taking off in your back garden and flying over your house is out of the question sadly. The same distance also applies to flying near gatherings of more than 1000 people – a drone breaking this rule interrupted a Huddersfield v Liverpool match back in 2016.

You should also never fly more than 400ft (121m) above the surface, so if you start at the top of a hill and fly out, you need to consider this. And to avoid another Gatwick-style incident you should never fly in an airports flight restriction zone (FRZ). These differ in size depending on the airport in question.

Finally, you’ll also need to consider the weather. Most consumer drones aren’t rated for being used in the rain or high winds, but there are apps which can help you determine if it’s safe to fly or not. 

If you read yesterday’s post about drone flying, it might seem like all of this is designed to put you off flying as it sounds extremely complicated.  But there are plenty of tools out there to help you fly safely and legally. Here are two that I use before every flight: 

UAV Forecast

As we just mentioned weather can play a big part in making the decision to fly or not fly. UAV Forecast is an app that gives you drone-specific weather information such as wind speed, visibility, rain probability and sunrise/sunset times. It also has a handy map that shows nearby airports, no fly zones and other restricted areas. 

Drone Assist

NATS worked on the Drone Code and to help flyers with doing so safely they developed an app that uses your location to help you understand the risks of flying where you are. It has in-depth information on restricted areas as well as detailed maps that shows ground hazards such as electrical pylons, schools and other air users. 

If you can navigate your way around all the rules then there is plenty of fun you can have with UAVs, especially with the emergence of First-Person View (FPV) Drones. With these drones you wear a set of goggles which show you exactly what the drone can see, giving you a new dimension to your flying capabilities. These take a bit of practice to get used to. 

Using drones for film and photography is a great way to capture stunning new perspectives on places and scenery that you love. You only have to search Instagram to find gorgeous images of Castle Hill, Emley Moor and other stunning Huddersfield locations.

Flying as a hobbyist allows you to enjoy using your drone for your own personal enjoyment. If you want to start making money from using your drone through online sales, ad supported photo and video platforms like YouTube, or through surveying services you need to pass additional qualifications to obtain permission from the CAA. 

New laws around the commercial operation of drones come into force on 31st December 2020, and if this is a route you wish to follow I would suggest speaking to Coptrz in Leeds, who are the UK’s leading commercial drone experts and offer a number of courses to get you fit for commercial flight. 

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