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Drones: The ability to go anywhere and film anything?

Ali Agah shines a light on the possibilities, laws and legal implications of domestic drones

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On 16 October 2017 a drone collided with a commercial aircraft in Canada. Six passengers and two crew members were on board. Although the aircraft only sustained minor damage and everyone survived, the potential danger of drones has become increasingly clear.

Such incidents have not been restricted to Canada either. In 2014, there were 94 police reports concerning drone-related cases. In 2015, this figure soared to 425 reports - an uptake of 352 per cent. Consequently, there has been an outcry for improved regulation around drone usage. Drones have even been causing concerning levels of disruption in the UK: in July 2014, an unidentified drone was reported for serious risk of collision with an Airbus A320 (capable of carrying 180 people) while the plane was coming in to land at Heathrow Airport. More worryingly, the drone was not even detected by air traffic control.

Development of unmanned aircrafts dates back to the First World War, although the war ended before the aircrafts were ready for combat. These aircrafts later came to be known as 'drones' and have created a lucrative CV for themselves, changing the way wars are fought. The makers of the thrilling film Eye in the Sky, which explores the moral dilemmas of drone strikes, used the slogan "welcome to the new front line" - which has since been proven to be a correct statement.

However, this article does not concern the destructive power of the drones used by militaries, but rather the potentially harmful implications of domestic drones on the civil market. Today anyone can buy a drone, which will set them back anything from £20 to thousands of pounds - with many varieties available from national technology retailers or Amazon. Obviously, these drones do not exactly come equipped with heat-seeking missiles, but many do have cameras mounted onto them which can give for breath-taking shots from unique angles, inconceivable without this new technology.

Consider the possibilities. You can take selfies without selfie sticks, see jungles from above the trees like in Planet Earth, or even follow or film someone without them knowing there even is a drone, never mind discovering who's flying it! Wait. That sounds illegal. So what is the law doing to stop this?

Given how easy it is for anyone to buy and fly drones today, it comes as no surprise that most people do not even consider the legal implications of their flying toys. However, there are laws about what you can or cannot do with a drone, so it is worth getting your head around them before you consider investing.
Laws like harassment, defamation, or invasion of privacy can be implicated in drone usage

In 2015, Nigel Wilson became the first person to be prosecuted for flying a drone illegally, when he used it to fly over Premier League football matches and film them for his YouTube channel. Susan Wright, the Barrister who represented him, mentioned that the law currently only looks at the size of your drone rather than its capabilities or the motivations of the pilot, because "from a health and safety lens; that's what the question is". So, if you are thinking of flying one of these cool gadgets, weight it first. Once you have done that, go to the Civil Aviation Authority's (the regulations authority for all aircraft operated by civilians) website and see which category your drone falls under and what rules apply to it.

As a rule of thumb, most drones (under 20kg) must follow this Drone Code:

  1. Stay within 500m from your drone so you can maintain direct unaided visual contact with the drone. Looking through the camera screen doesn't count; you must be able to see it in the air. Technically, you can apply for CAA's permission to look through a screen but it is less hassle to look at the image later or get someone else to do it.

  2. Keep the drone below 120m height to reduce the chance of collision with manned aircrafts as they usually fly above that height.

  3. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions. Not just when you put it together for the first time; this is not IKEA. Follow every instruction, every time you fly.

  4. Stay 50m away from individuals or properties and 150m away from crowds or built-up areas. Nigel Wilson, as I mentioned earlier, was prosecuted on this basis.

  5. DO NOT endanger other aircrafts; unless you want to spend up to 5 years in prison for this criminal offence. Just stay away from aircrafts, airports and airfields.

  6. Do not forget, the responsibility is with you...

As mentioned earlier, you can technically apply to the CAA to request permission to amend these rules slightly. In fact, if you are a pilot for a company like Batcam (which requires taking a 2-day course, a theory test, and a practical test to join) you can fly 30m away from crowds of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium. Batcam film anything and everything from an Arsenal v Manchester United match for BT Sports to Unilad Dead Rising for Unilad. However, this is all at the discretion of CAA and a prospective driver must show they are capable enough, and 'unique' enough, for such special consideration.

There you have it! It still does not seem that the law has caught up with the super advanced, totally futuristic concept of drones doing more than flying (like spying). But, if you think you have a green light to buy a drone and film unsuspecting victims or become a pranking YouTube star, think again. Though the law has not technically turned on a red light, other laws, like harassment, defamation, or invasion of privacy can be implicated in drone usage. Furthermore, there currently is a strong call for further regulation, so it seems likely that such behaviour will soon become unambiguously illegalised.

If the slippery legal territory around drone usage has not put you off piloting a drone or halted your desire for getting some breath-taking videos from high angles, then I hope this has guided you to many airborne adventures. Just remember to fly safe.

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