Hey everybody and welcome to the blog!
In this blog post, we're going to take a look at if, and how, you can now legally fly your drone over roads, buildings and people in the UK.
The drone regulations in the UK in particular are in a constant state of flux. Constantly trying to keep up with the ever evolving capabilities of small unmanned aircraft, combined with the increasingly creative ways in which they are being used, across all industry verticals.
The UK CAA have changed the wording in the permission for commercial operations (PfCO) documents which commercial drone operators hold.
These changes have been interpreted in many different ways by those in the industry; sometimes correctly, sometimes wildly incorrectly!
Read time approximately 4 minutes
The recent changes to the UK CAA PfCO wording have seen the restrictions for overflight of congested areas disappear.
As an evangelist from the early days of small unmanned aircraft, commercial operations this was an interesting evolution of the regulatory framework and one which personally I didn't expect to see happen.
That aside, this change to the PfCO would appear, to the uninitiated, to now give free rein for commercial drone operators in the UK to fly as they wish over congested areas. Many are interpreting this to include roads, houses, buildings and other infrastructure not under the control of the remote pilot; a privilege which was traditionally reserved only for operating the safety case (OSC) holders.
There was a reason that this privilege was reserved for a comparatively small group of drone operators in the UK, and this was primarily down to their understanding of drone operations, the air navigation order, their implementation of a safety management system (SMS) and their capabilities as a drone operator.
Not that holding an OSC automatically means that those people were able (or are able), to operate more safely than the holder of a standard permission, but additional layers of regulatory oversight and, in most cases, experience - definitely meant that they were less likely to suffer from an issue which could lead to harm or potential harm befalling members of the general public.
Technically, with the changes to the wording in the permission for commercial operation, any standard permissions holder could now fly their drone over a congested area however, there are also elements of the Air Navigation Order AND the PfCO wording itself which are worth bearing in mind before conducting any of these kinds of operations.
Namely, Article 94 of the Air Navigation Order states that the remote pilot must be reasonably satisfied that the flight can be safely made. Although this statement (as far as I'm aware) has never been tried under the judicial system, if an 'Expert Witness' were to be called to 'the dock', it would be very difficult for someone who had caused damage or harm whilst flying a quadcopter (or similiar UAS) over a congested area, not under their control, to argue that they had taken all precautions to ensure that the fight be safely made.
You can find version 5 of the CAA CAP 393 (Air Navigation Order) Here.
Whilst the uninitiated, and those with very little aviation awareness or experience, would (and indeed do) argue in forums and Facebook groups that the changes to the PfCO wording allow them to do whatever they wish, as long as they fly more than 50 m above any person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under their control. They would be very hard-pressed to use this as a defence in court when taken in an aviation context and within the greater meaning of the air navigation order.
The point above is best discussed in detail in its own blog, but there are some commercial drone operators, particularly in the UK, who seem to think that by doing a two-day course; they are now masters of aviation and fully understand the context and meaning of air law, the air navigation order and all of the associated pre-faces, articles and appendices therein.
This, unfortunately, is not the case and would not be an adequate defence in court if, heaven forbid, the worst should ever happen!
Another element to consider, which often gets misrepresented and misinterpreted by the 'barrack-room lawyers' on the forums and Facebook groups is Article 241 of the air navigation order. This article outlines 'reckless endangerment' and, I can see arguments for and against the fact that flying a drone over a congested area could be seen to be in breach of this article.
However, it's fairly difficult to argue that flying a small drone, with many single points of failure inherent within the system, over a congested area, without the control permission of the people who are there... Is appropriate and doesn't constitute an element of reckless endangerment.
That's not to say it can't be done safely, but if and when things go wrong I would suggest that your defence would be fairly 'thin on the ground'!
So, the long the short of it is that technically, yes, you can now fly your drone over congested and built-up areas if you hold a PfCO. However, I would suggest a modicum of caution and advise that you only do this if you can genuinely ensure that the fight can be safely made.
If there are any more questions that you can think of, which you think we should add to the sheet, then please drop them into the comments below and we'll look to get them added ASAP! :)
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Fly safe and blue skies
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