A Guide to Drones in the UK: What to Buy and Where to Fly

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

From the moment I first came across them, I’ve been terrified of drones. Autonomous, unnervingly-advanced flying machines capable of causing unbelievable levels of destruction. Since they were first deployed for military purposes by the US government around a decade ago, military drones are estimated to have killed up to around 6,000 people across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. At home, of course, it’s a rather different story.

In the UK, drones are establishing themselves as everyday objects. Consumer interest is rocketing, and for obvious reasons. Companies like DJI, Parrot and 3DR have brought an impressive range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the market, and many of us see them as little more than high-powered toys. Must-have Christmas gadgets. A gateway to a new weekend hobby. But serious issues remain.

So What’s the Problem?

There’s a drone for everyone, and some models come seriously cheap. Whether you want something that can entertain the kids, a contraption your pet rodent can sail on or one that can capture images that would rival those snapped by a camera crew on a helicopter, you’re spoilt for choice.

Which is why they’re still leaving behind a trail of trouble, though the situation abroad has been flipped on its head over here. With so many options available, consumer UAVs are becoming frustratingly tricky to police. As more and more people decide they need to fill that newfound hole in their lives with a flying lump of plastic and metal, it’s becoming increasingly clear that even mini drones are capable of causing chaos.

Whether innocently or intentionally, consumers are doing things with drones that they really shouldn’t be. Last year, a man was arrested for flying a drone over the Etihad Stadium during a game between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, and slightly more recently, a guy crashed his piece into the White House after he'd had a few too many shandies.

There are rules in place to stop incidents like these taking place, but not a great deal of people know what they are.

UK Drone Law

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which is responsible for investigating the risks posed to manned aircraft by drones, has established ‘The Dronecode’, a short list of rules to be followed by drone users. Here are the basic guidelines:

  • Make sure you can see your drone at all times and don't fly higher than 400 feet
  • Always keep your drone away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields
  • Use your common sense and fly safely
  • Don't fly camera-equipped drones within 50m of people, vehicles, buildings or structures, or over congested areas or large gatherings

Pretty simple, right? Sadly not. Since there are different types of drone available to enthusiasts, there are a number of variations on the rules. People using small drones (under 20kg) for aerial work purposes like data acquisition and surveillance, for instance, are required to gain special permission from the CAA before taking to the skies within 150m of a 1,000-strong gathering of people, or within 50m of any person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the flier. Right.

On the other hand, provided you’re only in it for the fun and you keep your drone well away from other people and buildings, you don’t need to wait for the green light from the CAA in order to do your thing. Confused yet? There’s more.

Larger drones are an entirely different kettle of fish. Currently, they're tested in segregated airspace, called 'Danger Areas', which are closed to other aircraft. Looking into the future, if large unmanned aircraft are to be allowed to operate in ‘non-segregated’ airspace, they'd have to use a ‘detect and avoid’ system, which would keep them from crashing into absolutely everything. For now, they're stuck in the danger zone.

Beyond the Rulebook

Even with the guidelines in place, free will is difficult to control. For instance, if somebody really wanted to strap a water balloon filled with piss and fly it across to Downing Street – heaven knows why – they theoretically could. That’s where geofencing comes in.

An ever-increasing number of drones, DJI’s Phantom line, for example, are being programmed not to enter certain airspace. Through geofencing, the coordinates of airports and other sensitive areas are baked into a drone's system, forcing it to land when it turns up somewhere it shouldn't be.

It’s a clever solution, which has the full backing of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, but it’s also gained a lot of critics. The most obvious drawback of geofencing is that it’s not being used by all manufacturers. If you wanted to buy a model from a manufacturer that doesn't use geo-fencing technology, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you.

There’s the issue of data accuracy too. We spoke to 3DR’s Roger Sollenberger, who isn’t convinced that geofencing is the way ahead. “Geofencing is a generally acceptable solution for many scenarios, but it isn’t what I would call a comprehensive solution,” said Sollenberger. “For one, someone might have legitimate clearance or a permit to fly in an area where a company prohibited their drones from flying. And if someone wants to get around geofencing badly enough, it’s a lot of work, but they can.

“Also there’s the question of accuracy. How fresh and reliable is the airspace information that geofences are built on? The aviation authority may have issued a temporary flight restriction — perhaps for an event like a marathon or a visit from a dignitary — for an area that a blanket geofence hasn’t covered. Or the inverse: the airspace data may be out of date.”

Rather than throwing its eggs into the geofencing basket, 3DR’s opted to automatically feed real-time airspace safety information from AirMap into its Solo smart drone app. Rather than disabling systems, the data instead informs people of any restrictions in their flight area, which 3DR reckons is a little more helpful. “We implement information technology that educates our users, so we can all be better informed pilots,” continued Sollenberger. “As with anything, education leads to informed and safer decisions.”

Drone Cops

Ultimately, it's the police force's responsibility to ensure we stick to the rules and don't cause utter havoc. However, it may surprise you to learn that coppers are flirting with the idea of rolling out flying bobbies on the beat, which would replace street-patrolling officers and possibly even CCTV cameras.

“Some police forces in the UK are looking into the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to see if they are an effective, and less costly, alternative to traditional policing methods; such as aerial and foot patrols or CCTV," Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry told Giz UK. "Trials are ongoing and the police service are developing national guidance for the use of UAVs.”

While such a scheme could end up saving money in the long run, as well as ensuring police officer safety, it also brings up serious issues. The most pressing of the lot is, who watches the watchmen? While we imagine the first wave of drones in hi-vis jackets would be under manual control, who would be responsible for the inevitble batch of truly autonomous UAVs that would follow? Police conduct is under constant scrutiny, and it surely wouldn't be long before we found ourselves embroiled in a '#dronegate'-type scandal.

What Drone Should I Buy?

Cheap Drone: Hubsan Q4 Nano

The Hubsan Q4 Nano Quadcopter is one of the cheapest drones you can get your hands on. Available for less than £25, it's a friendly, basic model that's designed for indoor use. You'll get a few minutes of flight time between charges, but that'll be enough to tempt you in.

Middling: AR Parrot 2.0

If you've already got a taste for drones, the £270 AR Parrot 2.0 will slake your thirst. It's a great-looking model capable of recording HD footage from multiple angles. 36 minutes of flying time is plenty generous too.

Drone King: 3DR Solo

The big boy. The 3DR Solo mentioned above is a £1,000 beast with a giant box of tricks. As well as being able to capture great aerial shots, it comes with that specialised AirMap system, ensuring you don't get in anybody's way.

Image credit: Shutterstock/antb (big ben); Shutterstock/youcanmore (drone) Shutterstock/tutti frutti (Union Flag)

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