Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a Drone!

From self-repairing cities to transforming cinematic and television experiences, drones are becoming increasingly prevalent. To ensure their safe and proper use in the UK, the Government launched its consultation on 21 December 2016, ‘Unlocking the UK’s high tech economy: consultation on the safe use of drones in the UK’ (Consultation). Those who wish to voice their opinion, should submit their response by 15 March 2017.

In this article, we explore some of the issues that drone users should consider when filming including: aviation law, copyright and privacy.

UK Aviation Regulations

In the UK, drones (otherwise known as “unmanned aircrafts”) are subject to a number of rules and regulations depending on their weight and proposed use. The principal piece of legislation governing drones is the Air Navigation Order 2016 (ANO) effected through the Civil Aviation Act 1982. The key points to note under ANO are as follows:

Overriding Principle. It is prohibited “to recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property”.

Weight. To avoid falling within the remit of more extensive aviation regulations and be classified as a “small unmanned aircraft”, it is advisable not to exceed 20kg. Most aerial filming drones or camera drones weigh significantly less than 20kg.

Use. The most relevant Articles are 94 and 95 ANO. Article 94 ANO applies to all drones weighing less than 20kg. Article 95 ANO applies to drones weighing less than 20kg which are also used for surveillance (i.e. recording and filming).

There are two particular points of note:

1) If you wish to use a drone for “commercial operations” then you must apply to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for permission. Unless you are using a drone for filming as a hobby, as Keith Bremner was when he caught Top Gear being filmed, then permission from the CAA will likely be required.

2) Drones may not fly: (a) over or within 150m of any congested area or open-air assembly of more than 1,000 people without permission from the CAA (e.g. over a major sports match); and (b) drones may not fly within 50m of any vehicle, building structure or person not under the control of the drone pilot without permission from the CAA.

Permission and Penalties. Applying for permission from the CAA can be rather complicated. Due to the complexities involved it may be advisable to seek a specialist contractor who has all the necessary insurance and CAA permissions to assist with any filming work, especially considering that failure to comply with the ANO is a criminal offence.


Photographs. Under UK copyright law, the first owner of the copyright will be the photographer, unless the photographer was an employee. In that case, the employer will own the copyright in the photograph.

Films.  What about moving pictures (i.e. films)? Under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, a film has two legal owners: the producer and the principal director. Again, if the film is made during the course of employment, the employer will own the copyright in the film. In the case of drones, the owner will probably be the person who programmed the drone to make the film (i.e. the producer); and the person who has “creative control” (i.e. the principal director who decides what to film and how to film it).

Data Protection and Privacy

In the UK, there is no specific data protection legislation on the use of drones. A breach of privacy is likely to be dealt with under the established law on breach of confidence through the Human Rights Act 1998. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has however said that drones “can be highly privacy intrusive” as they may capture images of individuals “unnecessarily”. In light of this, the ICO has released some guidance which should be followed: In the picture: A data protection code of practice for surveillance cameras and personal information. It is advisable for anyone considering using drones in their next film or TV production, for instance, to read this, particularly considering the penalties.

Penalties. The ICO has the power to impose a fine of up to £500,000 where a drone operator seriously contravenes UK data protection law and the “contravention is of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress, and is deliberate or likely and should have been prevented”. As previously noted, this will become more significant in May 2018 when the General Data Protection Regulation comes into force.

For further information please contact:

Simon Halberstam, Partner and Head of the Technology Law Group

E: simon.halberstam@smab.co.uk

DDI: 020 3206 2781