UK and USA drone laws compared

Just as the use of drones keeps on increasing, so does the amount of ‘near miss’ events that are reported, or other incidents that are the result of unsafe and unlawful drone piloting techniques. In order to combat this, new proposals have been launched by the government which could change the way that UK skies are regulated, and how drone pilots must act.

What are the current laws on drones in the UK?

UK airspace is regulated by the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority). Within the ANO (Air Navigation Order) it covers guidelines on how drones should be used which can be read in conjunction with document called CAP722. In line with recent events it has revised these guidelines and released the Drone Code to make them easier to understand.

  • Non-commercial drone pilots do not need a permission (like a licence) to fly, as long as the aircraft weighs less than 20kg.
  • If you want to fly a drone for commercial use then you must gain a permission or licence.
  • Drones must be flown at a maximum height of 400ft, no more than 500m from you horizontally, and must always remain within sight.
  • Drones must be flown 150m away or more from congested areas, unless special permission is granted. Commercial operators, flying drones under 7kg, are granted this as part of a PfCO. 
  • If these rules are ignored operators may suffer a prosecution. The prosecution would fall under the legislation of the Civil Aviation Act and an example can be seen here in the news
What does Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) mean in drone law?

The laws on drones in the UK say that Visual Line of Sight means that the drone pilot is able to maintain direct, unaided (other than corrective lenses) visual contact with the drone which is sufficient to monitor its flight path in relation to other aircraft, persons, vessels, vehicles and structures for the purpose of avoiding collisions. Within the UK, VLOS operations are normally accepted out to a maximum distance of 500m horizontally and 400 ft vertically from the drone pilot. Operations at a greater distance from the drone pilot may be permitted if an acceptable safety case is submitted. For example, if the aircraft is large it may be justifiable that its flight path can be monitored visually at a greater distance than 500 m. Conversely, for some small aircraft, operations out to a distance of 500m may mean it is not possible to assure or maintain adequate visual contact.

What does Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) mean in drone law?

Operation of a drone beyond a distance where the drone pilot is able to respond to or avoid other airspace users by visual means is considered to be a BVLOS drone intended for operation beyond visual range of the drone pilot will require an approved method of aerial separation and collision avoidance that ensures
compliance with Rule 8 of the Rules of the Air Regulations 2007 (Rules for avoiding aerial collisions), or will be restricted to operations within segregated airspace. 

How does this compare with the USA?


Last year, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) also released an update to its current guidelines with the Part 107 rule. It now requires users to take a safety test, similar to the one proposed in the UK. However, rather than potentially restricting the use of drones, it opens up the door for many new users, taking place of the licence rather than being required on top of it.

While the introduction of exam style tests has paved the way for drone based businesses in America, the potential of a similar rule being launched in the UK is being greeted with a cooler response, impacting hobbyist pilots rather than just those who want to fly commercially. However, in a time when optimum safety within the entire industry is needed in order to ensure its future success, could this be the right way to ensure that those flying a drone legally are of a high enough standard to practice safe flight, no matter what their reason for flying is?

How do you think the current UK drone laws compare with those in the US, as well as those that are proposed for the future? Would calls for registration or safety tests affect you personally?