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Essential drone guide: Everything you need to know if you're planning to buy one to take stunning aerial shots


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They are one of the most in-demand gadgets - putting in our hands the ability to soar a camera into the sky and take breathtaking aerial images.

But, as Spiderman once said, with great power comes great responsibility. Owning and flying one of the machines is not a simple case of getting it out of the box and taking to the skies.

Drones have become increasingly popular - but do you know the rules regarding their use?
Drones have become increasingly popular - but do you know the rules regarding their use?

And fail to register your device - or to ignore the rules - and you could face an on-the-spot fine from the police or, in extreme cases, time behind bars.

"Drones have amazing potential," explains Jonathan Nicholson, assistant director and head of campaigns at the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

"They're amazing fun, we want people to use them, but we want people to use them safely."

To that end, the CAA, the UK's aviation regulator, is tasked with ensuring those splashing out are aware of what you can - and cannot do - with the motorised flying machines.

It's a weighty issue - and it is the weight of your drone which will determine where you can fly and how many hoops you'll need to jump through before you can fly it.

Drones give remarkable images from above - such as the cliff fall at Surf Crescent, Eastchurch on Sheppey. Picture: Henry Cooper
Drones give remarkable images from above - such as the cliff fall at Surf Crescent, Eastchurch on Sheppey. Picture: Henry Cooper

So let's try and keep this simple.

Firstly, if the drone you've bought weighs less than 250g, is classed as a toy and has no camera, then you need nothing else than your common sense to fly one.

If it weighs less than 250g - and many of the best-selling models are - but comes with a camera, and isn't classed as a toy, then you'll need to register for what's known as an operator ID before you use it. To do that, head to the CAA's website. It will basically mean you need to register to say you are responsible for the drone.

"If your drone is under 250g it's more about the damage you could do to a person rather than anything else," says the CAA's Jonathan Nicholson.

"It's unlikely it would cause too much of an issue to another aircraft or property if you flew it into the side of a house, for example. But their blades are the same - you could still seriously hurt someone. That's the biggest risk.

Keep your distance from people if using a drone. Picture: Civil Aviation Authority's Drone Code
Keep your distance from people if using a drone. Picture: Civil Aviation Authority's Drone Code

"There have been incidents where people have had life-changing injuries by being hit by a drone. Although," he adds reassuringly, "they are very, very rare."

Once you've got your ID, you'll also be able to launch your drone in your garden, should you so desire, and get those aerial shots you've always fancied seeing. But, be warned, once you take off, you need to keep to some strict guidelines - especially if you're in built-up areas. Key to it all is doing nothing to endanger life, or intrude on other people's privacy. If your aim is simply to snout over your neighbour's garden wall from above you will have some explaining to do.

"You can still get a very capable drone under 250g which can do really amazing things," explains the CAA, "but it is so much smaller - we're talking being able to fit in your hand.

"But you can be talking of £400 to a £1,000 for one of those. And the camera level on those is really good."

Which, many would say, is reason enough to make sure you abide by the rules and don't take any risks. No-one wants to see £500 worth of drone crashing into the sea or into that tree you didn't judge well, after all.

Don't go too high. Picture: Civil Aviation Authority's Drone Code
Don't go too high. Picture: Civil Aviation Authority's Drone Code

You must also ensure your drone doesn't exceed the 120metre height limit (400ft) from the ground for fear you may come face-to-face with an aircraft. And that's worth remembering if you're flying your drone over cliffs.

What you absolutely cannot do, no matter how small your drone, is fly over crowds. So if you spot one flying over the heads of festival goers, for example, or a football match, then you're likely to be in hot water. The theory being if it suddenly falls from the sky, the crowds have no way of avoiding it.

If you see a prison, don't try and spot the in-mates either. Prisons are a strict no-go zone for drones unless you have permission to do so from the authorities.

Few will forget the chaos caused at Gatwick Airport, in December 2018, when drones were spotted around the airport complex. It sparked a huge alert, the grounding of flights and howls of frustration from those planning to get away for Christmas.

No-one was ever identified as the culprits.

Drones are strictly banned from flying near registered airports - with jail the threat for endangering aircraft
Drones are strictly banned from flying near registered airports - with jail the threat for endangering aircraft

But it has heightened awareness of the issues - which means the police are likely to have a zero tolerance approach if you decide to follow in their footsteps. What's more, if you endanger an aircraft by your actions, you could end up in jail for five years.

"The police are the number one enforcers," says the CAA. "We've done some work recently with the police and their capability and knowledge has exponentially increased over the last couple of years to deal with drone misuse.

"Obviously, their number one target is criminal use. They are getting more and more powers. In the next couple of months a law is being implemented to allow police to issue on the spot fines for drone misuse which they couldn't before. And that can even be for something like having not registered. That could be a fine and they'll take away your drone.

"People will see a lot more police enforcement over the coming months and years on drone activity."

Kent Police declined to comment when approached for this article. The force, along with other emergency services, have embraced the capabilities of drones - using them to follow crooks or survey crash or fire scenes. Kent County Council has also used them to check for potholes.

Never fly near crowds. Picture: Civil Aviation Authority's Drone Code
Never fly near crowds. Picture: Civil Aviation Authority's Drone Code

If you decide to buy a drone bigger than 250g, though, then you'll not only need to get an operator ID but also a flyer ID which will involve taking a theory test.

Restrictions are a lot tighter too. You're not allowed to fly near built-up areas - be they residential or commercial - and you have to keep a 50metre gap between you and anyone else as a bare minimum.

Since registrations for drones were launched in 2019, more than 300,000 people have signed up.

And as the specifications of these remarkable cameras in their flying machines rise, so, inevitably will the numbers.

Concludes Jonathan Nicholson: "Are there people out with a drone which they should be registered to use? Probably yes, there are. But that's an on-going campaign to make people understand they need to.

Keep your height and distance to ensure you are flying your drone safely. Picture: Civil Aviation Authority's Drone Code
Keep your height and distance to ensure you are flying your drone safely. Picture: Civil Aviation Authority's Drone Code

"It's all about just making sure they know the safety rules."

To stay up-to-date with the latest rules and regulations surrounding drones, click the Civil Aviation Authority's Drone Code here.

To read more of our in-depth features click here.

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