Over the last decade or so, the remote-control drone has finally taken a leap into the mainstream. They’re popular for a variety of reasons and with a range of niches. They provide photographers with a means of taking stunning aerial shots that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. They also allow homeowners to check out their roof and guttering condition without having to leave the ground. They’re also spectacular recreational vehicles in their own right.
However, to fly your drone, you’ll need to ensure that you’re on the right side of the regulations. Let’s run through the process.
Why do you need a drone license to fly a drone?
The short answer here is that you don’t. Somewhat confusingly, there’s no such thing as a drone ‘licence’ in the UK.
You can get started with drones without the need to tell anyone about it. But the kinds of activity you can do and the places you can fly the drone will be limited. If you want to take the hobby seriously, then it’s time to think about licencing. Having got the relevant permissions, you’ll be able to fly heavier drones and do so near to interesting things like crowds and wildlife.
Specifically, toys below 250g, or in the ‘C0’ class, are exempt. But you will need to apply if you’re going to attach a camera to your drone. You can check out a list of the kinds of drones that require registration here.
Who controls drone licencing in the UK?
In the UK, drone ‘licenses’ are dispensed by the Civil Aviation Authority.
Who needs to be registered?
Registrations come in two different kinds. There’s a ‘Flyer ID’, which covers the person actually flying the drone. Then there’s an ‘Operator ID’, which covers the person responsible for keeping the drone in good condition. Much of the time, these two people are the same; sometimes, parents need to hold the Operator ID on behalf of children who aren’t yet eighteen. Operator IDs are valid for a year and cost £9, Flyer IDs are valid for five years and cost nothing.
What is the ‘Open’ category?
If you’re in the Open category of drone operators, then you’ll be able to fly without the permission of the CAA. To fly in this category, you’ll need a flyer ID and display the drone’s operator ID. You’ll also need to avoid flying without the Flight Restriction Zone of any protected aerodrome.
What are the subcategories?
The Open category is divided into three subcategories:
- A1 means flying over people’s heads.
- A2 means flying close to people — or rather, close enough that they would be at risk if you were to lose control of the drone. The technical minimum safe distance is thirty metres.
- A3 means flying far away from anyone.
What about ‘Commercial Operations’?
It’s the A2 category where most commercial drone operators need to concern themselves. If you’re going to fly near people, you need to demonstrate your competence with an A2 Certificate of Competency. You’ll also need the permission of the CAA. This permission used to take the form of a qualification called ‘PfCO’, or Permission for Commercial Operation, which isn’t technically a license, but a legal document required for operating a drone for profit in UK airspace.
This document, until August 2016, was known as a Permission for Aerial Work (PFAW). The PfCO, in turn, has been replaced by Operational Authorisation, but the permissions granted by existing PfCOs are set to run until March 31st 2022. As it stands, Operational Authorisation is the closest thing to a commercial drone licence in the UK.
Now that we’ve established whether or not you need a licence, we can begin to think about taking the first step.
Take the theory test
Your first step should be to study The Drone and Model Aircraft Code, which outlines the basic rules of the sky. From there, you can demonstrate your knowledge through an online test. This involves 40 multiple choice questions, with a pass mark of 30. You can consult with the code during the test and take as long as you like to complete it — though most people will get through it in half an hour. Plus, if you fail, you can retake it for free as many times as you like.
Children will need a parent or guardian present while taking the test for data protection reasons.
Apply for the Flyer ID and Operator IDs
You’ll probably have registered for the relevant permissions as part of the process of taking the test. You need a debit card to pay online for the Operator ID.
Obtaining an A2 CofC
If you want to fly your drone in the A2 category, you’ll need to undergo more formal training. This involves a course with a practical dimension and a grounding in the law and the weather.
These courses are provided by approved bodies called Recognised Assessment Entities (or RAEs). This is a fancy term for an organisation trusted by the CAA to identify competent pilots.
What about the ‘Specific’ category?
Once you’ve got your operator and flyer IDs, you can think about applying for Operational Authorisation for the Specific category. This will allow you to do things that you can’t under the open category; if you’re using drones extensively for commercial purposes, you might find that Specific category flight is a requirement.
This requires performing a risk assessment and submitting an application. It might be a PDRA (or pre-defined risk assessment) conducted by the CAA, which will then apprise you of a list of requirements. Where this is impracticable, the operator must explain what they intend to do and how.
If you’re looking to perform an operation of this type, then you’ll need a General Visual Line of Sight Certificate, which satisfies most of the PDRAs. To obtain one, you’ll need to both perform a theory exam and undergo a test flight. Both steps are to be taken at an RAE facility.
What’s the difference between a drone registration and a drone licence?
Technically, there’s no ‘licence’ required to fly a drone in UK airspace. Instead, you’re looking at Authorisations and Permissions, which are quite different. To fly a drone that isn’t classed as a toy, however, you’ll need to register both your drone and the flyer, and take a simple online test.