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Attack of the Drones - what is the law about flights over land?

on Thursday, 04 August 2016.

The use of drones for both commercial and recreational purposes has grown as the technology has advanced and become more affordable.

One big question which inevitably arises, both for people wishing to fly drones and for landowners, is whether they are permitted to do so over a particular piece of land.

Could it be trespass?

In general, flying drones over another person's property will not of itself fall within the law of trespass. However, this is not to say that you are free to fly wherever and however you wish. If property is damaged, a person is injured, or if persistent irritation is being caused by a drone, the victim may well have a cause of action in the law of battery, nuisance or harassment. The question of trespass is also open to being revisited by the court if a case with the right circumstances arose. For example regularly hovering over land, or taking multiple pictures such as to amount to continuous surveillance).

The Air Navigation Order 2009

You may have read in the press about Robert Knowles, who was fined in April 2014 for flying a drone over a BAE Systems facility in Cumbria. This was the first such conviction in the UK and took some enthusiasts by surprise.

The Air Navigation Order 2009 (the Order) provides a considerable amount of regulation for all aircraft, including 'small unmanned aircraft' (SUA). This includes any drone, model aeroplane and similar devices, whether purchased from a manufacturer or built at home, with a net mass under 20kg.

Regulations for all SUAs

The Order contains provisions requiring all aviation activity (including flights by SUAs) to be carried out safely. The person controlling the aircraft must not recklessly or negligently endanger any person or property as a result of the flight, or allow any article or animal to be dropped from the SUA so as to endanger any person or property.

In addition, the person in charge of the SUA must be reasonably satisfied that it can be flown safely, and must ensure that they keep 'direct, unaided visual contact' whilst flying the drone to ensure that it can be flown safely.

If a person wishes to fly an SUA for commercial purposes, they must obtain the permission of the Civil Aviation Authority before doing so.

Any unmanned aircraft which is over 20kg falls outside of the SUA regime and is subject to further regulation by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Does the drone have a mass over 7kg?

UK airspace is split into different classifications, from A to G, and the Order specifically prohibits SUAs with a mass (excluding fuel) over 7kg from entering certain classes of airspace without clearance from Air Traffic Control. The aircraft also cannot be flown at a height of more than 400 feet above the surface without the appropriate clearance from Air Traffic Control.

Does the drone have recording equipment on board?

There is further regulation if the SUA is equipped 'to undertake any form of surveillance or data acquisition', which includes both still image and video cameras. In this case, permission must be obtained from the Civil Aviation Authority to fly within 150 metres of congested areas or open-air assemblies of more than 1,000 persons, or within 50 metres of vessels, vehicles, structures and people.

Practical Advice

If you wish to fly a drone, and are unsure whether you have a right to do so, it is advisable to:

  • ensure that you are comfortable with where in the SUA regime your particular drone fits, to ensure that you comply with any relevant legislation
  • check with the Civil Aviation Authority as to the classification of the airspace in question to ensure that it isn't in a 'no fly zone'
  • seek the land owner's permission in advance

If you are a landowner and are concerned about people flying drones over your land, it may be worthwhile notifying them that you consider the flights to be an unwarranted interference with the use of your land, and why. This could include erecting signage on your property, if appropriate. This may have the practical effect of discouraging the flights.

If you have any further questions about the flight of drones over another person's land, please contact Gemma Pouncy in our Aerospace and Defence Team on 0117 314 5300.

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