The Law


Where a drone or any radio controlled aircraft is used for sporting and recreational purposes, including recreational (non-commercial) aerial photography and videography they are considered to be model aircraft; the law makes no specific distinction on types of aircraft, other than weight limits, and all model aircraft operators should read and understand the guidance contained in the CAA publication CAP-658 which is for model aircraft used for ‘sport & recreation’ and the regulations set out in the UK’s Air Navigation Order. ( Click here to read-CAP 658 )

(Note: Pilots of Models or Drones to be used for aerial ‘work’ (i.e. commercial gain) need to refer to the guidance in CAP 722: “Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK Airspace”)

CAP 658: “Model Aircraft a Guide To Safe Flying”

Key Points for all model pilots to note before, during & after flight

Choose an unobstructed site and at all times keep a safe distance from:

  • Persons
  • Vessels
  • Vehicles
  • Structures 

Only Fly:

  • In suitable weather
  • With regard for any other conditions such as local bye-laws
  • With due consideration for other people and property 
  • With the model in direct unaided visual line of sight at all times 
  • If reasonably satisfied that the flight can be made safely


Any powered model aircraft fitted with a receiver capable of operating in failsafe mode should have the failsafe set, as a minimum, to reduce the engine(s) speed to idle on loss or corruption of signal

Models Having a Mass from 7 kg to 20 kg should only be flown:

  • Clear of controlled airspace unless with Air Traffic Control (ATC) permission
  • Clear of any Aerodrome Traffic Zone (ATZ) unless with ATC permission
  • At less than 400 ft above the point of launch except with permission 
  • Well clear of any congested area of a city, town or settlement 
  • At least 50 m clear of persons, vessels, vehicles or structures. This can be reduced to 30 m for take-off or landing. Other model operators and any assistants or officials may be within this distance; as may vessels, vehicles or structures under their control
  • A serviceable ‘fail-safe’ mechanism should be incorporated to operate on loss of signal or detection of an interfering signal. For example on an internal combustion power driven model this should operate, as a minimum, to reduce the engine(s) speed to idle
  • Ensure that any load carried on the model is secure

Checks Before a Flying Session – All Models

If frequency control is in operation, obtain clearance to transmit. 

Switch transmitter ON, confirm correct model is selected, then receiver ON. Check that all controls operate freely and in the correct sense. Check that all control surfaces are in their correct positions with the transmitter trims at neutral. 

Look for any minor radio malfunctions such as slow or ‘jittery’ servos, glitches etc. If in doubt, do not fly. 

Never use propellers or rotor blades made of metal 

With electric models: 

  • The first and most important principle of electric flight ground safety is to understand that the instant you start to plug in the flight battery, the model you are holding may transform itself from a dead airframe into one with its motor running at full revs and all controls moving. No matter how good your other safety checks, you must be prepared for this to happen every single time you start to connect the flight battery
  • Since plugging in the flight battery is nearly always a two-handed job you must give serious thought to how your model will be restrained BEFORE it does something you don’t expect. When plugging in the flight battery, positive restraint, either by a helper holding the model or by some other method, and staying completely clear of the propeller must always be part of your regular routine
  • Electric motors have very different power and torque characteristics to normal IC model engines. You must take very great care when setting up their control systems and handling them as an accident, such as the propeller hitting your hand, which would stall a glow engine, might just make an electric motor turn even harder 
  • Control Checks. Finally, with the aircraft held securely (usually on the ground for IC models), open up to full power and re-check all flying controls again for full and free movement, also noting any glitches, hesitations or odd vibrations. If ANYTHING seems odd, DO NOT FLY 
  • Double Check that all transmitter trims, rate switches, mixers etc. are in their correct positions and that the transmitter meter is ‘in the green’ 

Specific Checks Before a Flying Session – Helicopters

  • Check all ball links for slop and change as necessary
  • Check that all rotor blades are in good condition with no damage apart from minor tip damage
  • Check for loose or missing nuts and bolts 
  • Check that there is no backlash in the drive system apart from gear backlash, which should not be excessive 
  • Check that servos are secure and free from contamination 
  • On IC models, check that the fuel tank and all piping is secure 
  • On electric models, check that the flight battery and associated wiring is secure
  • Check that the receiver aerial is secure and in good condition with no chafing or damage 


Before flying a drone or any radio-controlled aircraft, the pilot should make sure he/she has read the latest legal requirements A DEFINED IN THE AIR NAVIGATION ORDER….

The overriding consideration is compliance with the relevant articles of the Civil Aviation, Air Navigation Order. Articles 138, 137, 166 & 167, which are reproduced below, address the primary “endangering” provisions:

Article 138:

“A person must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property”


‘A person must not recklessly or negligently act in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft, or any person in an aircraft’

Article 166 (Small Unmanned Aircraft):

(1) A person must not cause or permit any article or animal (whether or not attached to a parachute) to be dropped from a small unmanned aircraft so as to endanger persons or property.

(2) The person in charge of a small, unmanned aircraft may only fly the aircraft if reasonably satisfied that the flight can safely be made.

(3) The person in charge of a small, unmanned aircraft must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the aircraft sufficient to monitor its flight path in relation to other aircraft, persons, vehicles, vessels and structures for the purpose of avoiding collisions.

N.B. The CAA issues an exemption to Article 166 (3) for First Person View (FPV) operation. See here for details.

(4) The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft which has a mass of more than 7 kg excluding its fuel but including any articles or equipment installed in or attached to the aircraft at the commencement of its flight, must not fly the aircraft:

  • (a) in Class A, C, D or E airspace unless the permission of the appropriate air traffic control unit has been obtained
  • (b)within an aerodrome traffic zone during the notified hours of watch of the air traffic control unit (if any) at that aerodrome unless the permission of any such air traffic control unit has been obtained or
  • (c) at a height of more than 400 feet above the surface unless it is flying in airspace described in sub-paragraph (a) or (b) and in accordance with the requirements for that airspace.

(5) The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft must not fly the aircraft for the purposes of aerial work except in accordance with a permission granted by the CAA.


The most relevant provisions in terms of photography/filming with model aircraft as a sport and recreational activity are covered within Article 167 below, which sets out the basic conditions of operation as well as specifying exact distances.

Article 167, (Small unmanned surveillance aircraft)

(1) The person in charge of a small, unmanned surveillance aircraft must not fly the aircraft in any of the circumstances described in paragraph (2) except in accordance with a permission issued by the CAA.

(2) The circumstances referred to in paragraph (1) are:-

  • (a) Over or within 150 metres of any congested area;
  • (b) Over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons;
  • (c) Within 50 metres of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft; or 
  • (d) Subject to paragraphs (3) and (4), within 50 metres of any person. 

(3) Subject to paragraph (4), during take-off or landing, a small, unmanned surveillance aircraft must not be flown within 30 metres of any person.

(4) Paragraphs (2) (d) and (3) do not apply to the person in charge of the small unmanned surveillance aircraft or a person under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft.

(5) In this article ‘a small unmanned surveillance aircraft’ means a small, unmanned aircraft that is equipped to undertake any form of surveillance or data acquisition.

Note that the collection of images of identifiable individuals, even inadvertently, when using a camera mounted on a drone will be subject to the Data Protection Act. This act contains requirements concerning the collection, storage and use of such images. Drone & other Model Pilots should ensure they are complying with any applicable requirements or exemptions. (Further information about the Data Protection Act can be obtained from the Information Commissioners Office website at


A little common sense goes a long way towards interpreting and complying with the relevant legal requirements.

The primary aim of the various Air Navigation Order provisions is to prevent members of the public being endangered and full size aviation being endangered, to a lesser degree these provisions also help to limit the potential for causing nuisance and for invading privacy.

In terms of filming or image capturing this limits how close we can get to people and structures that are nothing to do with us (i.e. not under the control of the pilot), however the positive aspect is that the wording of 167(c) permits closer operations where it is with the consent and knowledge of all parties involved (notwithstanding the primary endangering considerations of course).


Another primary consideration is the purpose of the flight, the flying of a model aircraft with a camera on board is recognised as a sport and recreational activity by the CAA and therefore covered under the terms of the insurance provided as part of the BMFA membership package (provided that the activity is legal in respect of the Air Navigation Order).

However, where a flight is made for payment or the purpose is in any way commercial i.e. not as a sport and recreational activity, then it becomes classed as aerial work by the CAA and requires an exemption to the Air Navigation Order to be issued in order to take place lawfully.

Details of aerial work and exemption application information can be obtained through the CAA website

It should be borne in mind that “aerial work” is an entirely separate activity to model flying, and as such it must be insured under the terms of an appropriate commercial policy, the standard policy provided to BMFA members does not provide cover for aerial photography on a commercial basis.


Whilst the overall considerations are the same as for any other model aircraft, there is no doubt that multi-rotors open up new areas for flying due to their ability to operate in relatively small spaces, this does however mean that careful consideration is required before flying in order to remain lawful.

If intending to fly on private land then the permission of the landowner should be sought, if flying on public land such as a park or open access site then you must ensure that there are no bylaws in place specifically prohibiting or restricting model flying.

The other main consideration is the overall suitability of the location for the activity, and that all flying can take place in compliance with the primary “endangering” provisions of the ANO (Articles 137 and 138) and also in accordance with the distances set out in Article 167 above.


  • Be familiar with the legal requirements relating to your chosen activity
  • Do not endanger person or property
  • Ensure that the proposed flying location is appropriate and safe
  • Maintain line of site for the purposes of control at all times (see CAA Exemption for specific details of FPV flight permissions)
  • Charging for flights renders the activity Aerial Work
  • Do not constitute a nuisance
  • Do not invade privacy


Mandatory questions for all future tests. Candidates must correctly answer five questions, chosen from the list below by the examiner during the test.

Q1Who regulates all civil flying activities over the United Kingdom, including model aircraft?
Q2How are the rules and regulations for flying established in law by Pariament (statute)?
Q3What does Article 137 of the ANO state?
Q4What does Article 138 of the ANO state?
Q5Who is legally responsible to ensure that a model is flown safely?
Q6Which civil Aviation Publication (CAP) relates specifically to the use of model aircraft, and for which specific purpose only?
Q7According to CAP 658, which model aircraft are required to have an operation failsafe and what is the minimum setting? – three key points
Q8What does Article 166 of the ANO say about the responsibilities of the person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft?
Q9What does Article 166 of the ANO say about visual contact with small unmanned aircraft?
Q10What does Article 166 of the ANO say about small unmanned aircraft over 7.5kg? – three key points
Q11What does Article 166 of the ANO say about aerial work for small unmanned aircraft?
Q12How is a flight for the purpose of ‘aerial work’ defined?
Q13How is a ‘small unmanned surveillance aircraft’ defined?
Q14What are the separation requirements of Article 167 – for small unmanned surveillance aircraft – when operation over or within a congested area or organised open-air assembly of more than 1000 persons?
Q15What are the separation requirements of Article 167 – for small unmanned surveillance aircraft – in respect of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft?
Q16Except during take-off and landing, what are the separation requirements of Article 167 – for small unmanned aircraft – excluding the person in charge of the aircraft or anyone under their control?
Q17What must be obtained before any flight within controlled airspace or an ATZ?
Q18CAA General Exemption E4049 – permits FPV flight without a buddy box, but with a competent observer. (a) How must the competent observer monitor the flight and (b) What is the maximum mass of aircraft that may be flown under this exemption?
Q19Who has legal responsibility for the safety of an FPV flight (a) conducted with a buddy box lead and (b) conducted without a buddy box lead?
Q20According to CAP 658 what are the 8 ‘Only fly if’ checks for an FPV flight of an aircraft over 3.5kg?