Legal 500

News & Articles

Drones III - Delivering for Google?

25-November-2015 17:42
in Aviation and Travel
by Christopher McCarthy

The law surrounding the use of drones in the UK is still in relative infancy. However, the latest chapter of the race to make deliveries by drones a reality may herald changes to the UK’s position in the future. Google has announced the development of its “Project Wing” system to facilitate deliveries of packages through drones, as it takes on retail giant Amazon in an attempt to make the jump from science fiction to commercial practicality.

The Current UK Position

The Civil Aviation Authority (“CAA”) regulates the use of airspace in the UK. In relation to drones, the relevant legislation being the Air Navigation Order 2009 (“ANO”), found here.

Articles 166 and 167 regulate the use drones weighting less than 20kgs. The majority of drones fall into this category and the regulations apply to their commercial and recreational use.

The key aspects of the regulations state:

  • The person in charge of the drone should only fly it if they are reasonably satisfied that the flight can be safely made.
  • The aircraft must be kept within the visual line of sight of the pilot (around 500m horizontally and 400ft vertically).
  • If the drone carries a camera then it must not be flown over or within 150m from congested areas or open-air assembly of more than 1,000 people, or within 50m of vessels, vehicles, building, structures which are not under the control of the pilot, or persons. During take-off and landing, it should not be flown within 30m of any person who is not the person in charge of the drone or under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft.
  • If the drone is being used commercially (e.g. you are being paid for photographs captured) then CAA permission is required.
  • If the aircraft weighs over 7kg but less than 20kg (excluding fuel but including any articles installed on it), then it must not fly more than 400ft off the ground or enter particular airspace zones unless appropriate permission has been granted.

Section 241(6) of the ANO makes contravening these rules a summary offence with a maximum sentence on conviction of a level 4 fine (£2,500).

Drones weighing over 20kgs attract much more stringent restrictions on their use.


The CAA is tasked by the Department of Transport to investigate and prosecute breaches of aviation safety rules by both individuals and companies. The approach by the CAA is to confine itself to dealing with incidents which pose a threat to aviation. Other matters will be handled by the police.

As a prosecuting authority in its own right, the CAA has brought cases against two men, one who flew a drone over a nuclear submarine base and one who flew over Alton Towers.

The CPS has prosecuted one man who flew his UAV over several premier league football stadiums during matches. Nigel Wilson was fined £1,800 after pleading guilty to nine offences contrary to sections 166 and 167 of the ANO.

Further Issues

As the majority of drones used for recreational purposes are flown for the footage that can be captured from on-board cameras, operators should be aware of the obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998. This can include any images captured which could identify individuals, making the operator of the drone a ‘data controller’ within the act.

As yet, there is currently no ‘protected frequency’ for the operation of drones, leaving them vulnerable to interference. The establishment of such a frequency may be considered in order to provide uniformity to the use of drones in our skies.

Other possibilities to refine regulation include registration of ownership upon purchase, as well as ‘geo-fencing’; where drones are programmed to be unable to enter restricted areas as marked on their internal GPS systems.

Future Developments

Google’s ‘Project Wing’ aims to provide deliveries of packages by drone to consumers by 2017, following Amazon’s suggestion earlier in the year that it would utilise drones. 

It is difficult however, to see how the current regulations would allow for this. As things stand in the UK, an army of Amazon or Google drones taking to the air in order to cater for the shopping needs of many is limited to the drawing board and the board rooms of advertising agencies.

However, while their place and use in the modern world is still being defined, there can be no doubt that drones are here to stay. Legislation will need to adapt in order to appropriately regulate them as well as avoid stifling the numerous advantageous uses for drones.  

© 2015 Chambers of Lawrence Power, 4 King’s Bench Walk, Temple, London, EC4Y 7DL. Tel: 020 7822 8822. www.4kbw.net  email jr@4kbw.net