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How can I start surveying with drones? Understanding UK commercial drone laws

Last updated on

September 8, 2021


    10 minute read

    How can I start surveying with drones in the UK?

    Understanding the ever-changing drone legislation in the UK is enough to give anyone a headache, especially if you’re looking to do it commercially and need to ensure your following the rules.

    We’ve written this blog to cut through the mysticism and give you the facts you need to know when deciding how to integrate drone technology into your operations. While this blog specifies the surveying sector, these same rules would apply to any commercial application of a drone.

    This Blog will cover;

    ✔ Roundup of the current UK drone laws

    ✔ Drone Registration

    ✔ Changes to UK Drone Laws and the EASA

    ✔ Drone Categories

    ✔ Understanding Restricted Airspace

    ✔ Drones, Data & Privacy

    ✔ VLOS

    Roundup of the current UK drone laws

    To begin with, a commonly held idea is that you’ll need some sort of permit the fly a drone in the UK, this is in fact false. In the UK, the aviation industry  is governed by the CAA (Civil aviation authority). The civil aviation authority’s primary aim is to enable the full and safe integration of us of all drone operations into the total aviation system and the regulations are beginning to be developed to achieve this.

    On the 31st of December 2020 the UK drone laws changed and all pilots now need to obtain an A2 certificate of competency (A2cofc) and/or a general visual line of site certificate (GVC).

    Now you might be asking why do I need an A2 CofC and GVC? The A2 CofC is a remote pilot competency certificate primarily intended to assure safe operations of drones close to uninvolved persons. While the GVC is a remote pilot competency certificate which provides a single qualification that is suitable for VLOS (Visual Line of Sight) operations within a Specific Category.

    Drone Registration

    All people operating a UAV in the UK weighing between 250g and 25kg need to follow these steps to legally pilot a drone (for pilots of smaller drones such as the Mavic mini, we still recommend completing both steps to ensure safe flight).

    1) The person responsible for the UAV must register as an operator to get an operator ID. There is a £9 fee for this and you must be 18 or over to register for an Operator ID.

    2) Any person intending to fly a drone (even if it’s not yours) must pass an online theory test and get a Flyer ID.

    All of your drones must be labelled with your Operator ID Number (not your Flyer ID).

    Changes to UK Drone Laws and the EASA

    As discussed above, the UK Drone Regulations changed on December 31, 2020, to align with those of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to allow free circulation of drones with Europe.

    The new rules remove the requirements of the PfCO (Permission for Commercial Operations) and whether your operation is commercial/non-commercial, focussing solely on the type of drone and where you intend to fly it.

    To emphasise the new focus away from commercial or leisure flying the Permission for Commercial Operations) has been replaced by an Operation Authorisation (OA) which still requires a CAA application and submission on an Operations Manual in order to demonstrate how your drone operations will be carried out safely and with due regard to legislation.

    There are now 3 categories of operations providing a framework related to the level of risk involved in the flight;

    1. Open Category

    The ‘open’ category section is the main reference for the majority of leisure drone activities and low-risk commercial activities. The ‘open’ category is in turn subdivided in three sub-categories – A1, A2, A3 — which may be summarised as follows:

    • A1: fly over people but not over assemblies of people
    • A2: fly close to people
    • A3: fly far from people

    2. Specific Category

    For medium-risk operations, operators will have to require an authorisation from the national aviation authority on the basis of a standardised risk assessment (PDRA – Pre-Defined Risk Assessment) or a specific scenario (Standard Scenario) STS. Pilots will require a GVC (General VLOS Certificate) to apply for operational authorisation (See Below for GVC details) 

    3. Certified Category

    In the case of high-risk operations, classical aviation rules will apply. To ensure operational safety flights falling under the Certified category with require certification of the UAS, licensing of the pilot and to be carried out by an approved operator.

    For more Information check the ESEA website HERE

    Understanding Restricted Airspace

    Once you’ve completed your training and acquired your licenses, you’ll need to understand restricted air space. As you maybe be working in close proximity to sensitive locations, understanding how different restricted airspaces can impact your mission is crucial, as failure to do so can lead to legal action and the grounding of your drone.

    To aid with this, drone manufacturers such as DJI have some incredibly helpful tools built into their software to aid with flight safety. In the case of DJI there is the Geo Zone Map software (image above) built into their range of drones to aid pilots with restricted zones. Pilots are able to search the airspace of the site they wish to fly in and get immediate insight into potential restricted airspaces, which depend on the severity, can then be applied to fly with in.

    The following Airspaces should be considered before a mission:

    • According to the CAA “any authority or regulatory body should be able to identify the specific laws, regulations or bye-laws that empower it to regulate the use of UAS, or more usually, the land from which they are operated, much as the CAA has set out the regulations that it applies”.

    • Landowner – you must have the permission of the landowner in order to take – off and land on their property.

    • Local Authority – individual authorities such as local councils often have specific requirements in order to carry out a flight within their jurisdiction. There may also be local bylaws which regulate your flight in addition to the Drone Code so always check with the local authority to ensure you are abiding by their requirements.

    • Police – you may need to inform the local police in advance of the location, date and time of your flight. If any additional information is needed they will let you know and issue you with a Log Number for your records.

    • CAA – the Civil Aviation Authority oversee and regulate UK civil aviation. If your flight can be carried out within the requirements of the Open category or within the remit of your Operational Authorisation there is no need to contact them for general flying.

    If different permissions are required (ie. You need to reduce the distance to buildings etc) then you may need to apply to them for an Operational Safety Case (OSC) which will then require that you provide evidence that you will be able to carry out the flight without compromising safety.

    • Controlled airspace – Class G Airspace is classified as “uncontrolled”, all other airspace is considered “Controlled” ie. Under the control of the direction of Air Traffic Control.

    • Rail Network – if your flight brings your drone in close proximity to the railway you will need to inform Network Rail of your intended flight path. Flights within 50m of the railway are not permitted and NR has a list of companies who are permitted to carry out this work, with whom they will put you in touch if required.

    • Nuclear Facilities – Nuclear Facilities will be surrounded by a Flight Restriction Zone (FRZ) and it is illegal to fly in this space without permission. You will be required to gain permission from an authorised person at the Facility and pass this to the CAA who will grant you temporary permission to carry out the flight.

    • Prisons, Military Bases, Sport Stadiums etc.– many sites are surrounded by restriction zones which restrict flights in that airspace. It is always recommended to check the airspace around the site you are planning to fly as soon as possible in your planning process in order to ensure you have the time to gain all the permissions which may be required.

    • Local ATC – you must not fly your drone in the vicinity of an airport. If your flight plan takes you within the airspace controlled by the airport you should contact the Air Traffic Control (ATC) and request permission to fly. Providing that your flight is deemed safe and any mitigation is put in place then it may still be possible to carry out your flight.

    Drones, Data & Privacy

    When flying your drone, it is your responsibility as the pilot to ensure that images or video captured by the drone aren’t invading others privacy. The Information Commissioner’s Office or ICO recommend “that users of drones – also called unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – with cameras should operate them in a responsible way to respect the privacy of others.”

    How can you fly responsibly?

    The ICO recommend the following steps to ensure your flights do not infringe on the privacy of others or the General Data Protection Laws (GDPR);

    • Let people know before you start recording – remain visible to those around you.
    • Consider your surroundings – apply common sense, understand your environment.
    • get to knows your camera first – understand the capabilities of your equipment
    • plan your flight – plan flights around private property
    • keep the images or videos safe – keep any captured material in a safe location
    • think before sharing – apply the same common sense to smartphone captured images.

    Operating in VLOS

    VLOS or visual line of site is the operation of a drone within a visual line of site. In the UK all drones are required to be flown within VLOS (except FPV racing drones which can be flown in ‘sterile zones’), regardless of whether or not they can operate further than the distance.

    Therefore when  surveying with your M300 RTK which has a transmission range of 15km, it must still be kept within VLOS. However work arounds can be found, with the use of multiple spotters. While surveying a large site, spotters can be placed strategically to ensure than the drone never leaves VLOS and can therefore continue it’s flight.

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    We hope you’ve found this blog useful, if you’d like to find out even more about drones in surveying, our industry expert James Pick can answer questions you may have.

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