Drone Scene’s Road Map to Legal Drone Flying in the UK

How can drone hobbyists navigate the complex landscape of laws and regulations governing UAV flying in state and local jurisdictions?

Despite the persistent claim that the FAA exercises exclusive authority over national airspace, state and local governments continue to impose their own regulations.  The problem for drone fliers?  These guidelines are rarely publicized and can shift from year to year.  They can also vary from one local jurisdiction to the next.

Drone fliers that want to abide by all laws may not even know when they’re violating one, and as a result, they can easily become subject to a fine, a confiscation of their aircraft, or an unwanted and potentially ugly confrontation with a fellow citizen disputing their right to fly.

Grey Arrows Drone Club, Britains’ largest private drone flying association, has tried to make things easier for drone fliers in the UK.  The group has compiled over 370 local authority bylaws and policies governing the recreational use of drones in the country.  It was a prodigious undertaking based on Freedom of Information (FOI) filings that compelled local authorities to respond to Grey Arrow surveys.

The nonprofit group integrated some 4 million data points from those surveys, which queried local authorities in extensive detail about their own guidelines for flying, plus additional information on potential constraints posed by local property owners.

The guide, known as “Drone Scene,” is one of the few comprehensive legal road maps available anywhere in the world.

Other countries do try to guide drone fliers, but none quite like Drone Scene does.  In the United States, UAV Coach has compiled an online guide of state and local drone flying regulations, listing all applicable laws, date of passage, and how they might differ from FAA guidelines.  One navigates the guide first by state, listed in alphabetical order, and then by city, with its relevant ordinance explained in brief.

For example, for Alabama, the guide notes that no separate state law exists to govern drone flights.  That means that drones would be allowed to fly in state parks and even in local parks, unless otherwise restricted.  However, two Alabama cities, Oxford and Orange Beach, have passed ordinances in recent years – Oxford, in 2016, and Orange Beach, a year later.

Oxford’s ordinance prohibits flying a drone over city-owned property, including parks and recreational areas, or any other area designated by the city’s police chief.  Orange Beach’s law restricts drone flying within 500 feet of any venue, outdoor special event, or Gulf Beach area unless the FAA and the city administrator have issued a special permit to allow it.

The beauty of the UAV coach guide is that it also lists the best local sites in each state for drone fliers to capture compelling video footage – with detailed information on what to expect at each site, plus an airspace map.  Alabama lists 5 local sites, including Oak Mountain State Park and Lake Purdy, the state’s largest reservoir located near Birmingham, the state capital.

The Lake Purdy profile notes:  “The undeveloped land gives this location a remote feeling, which is great for drone pilots who are looking to get away from the city to capture some incredible nature footage. Its relatively close proximity to downtown and its picturesque views make this an ideal location for capturing that picture-perfect shot.”

Even without permanent ordinances in place, local airspaces may still face additional regulations governed by Temporary Flight Restrictions or TFRs, due to special events or circumstances – for example, a forest fire or a natural disaster, or an extended police investigation.  Another case might be the temporary movement of a VIP – a major political figure.  TFRs can be brief, lasting less than a day, or may last for years – for example, Disneyland Corporation has a standing TFR that can be suspended on a case-by-case basis  if the drone flier is performing a service for the company.

For American fliers, there are a number of apps, including Kitty Hawk, Aloft and B4UFLY that are supposed to provide drone fliers with up-to-date listings of all TFRs, but experience has shown that the listings may be outdated.  Going to the source – the FAA, which is supposed to issue all TFRs – may be the best bet.

Still, none of these apps, or even the FAA’s own web site, can quite compare with the UK’s Drone Scene finder, which is interactive with the user and incorporates satellite survey imagery of any desired ground location in the British Isles (i.e. Wales and Scotland as well as Britain).  The user can zoom in and out to identify choice landscapes and topography as well as local climate and weather information that might affect the quality of visual overflights.  TFRs are also clearly designated and are more likely to be completely up to date as Drone Scene data is integrated with the latest information British civil aviation – a key advantage over the apps available for the United States.  Finally, Drone Scene apprises fliers of a wide range of temporary or permanent air and ground obstacles that can affect drone flying, even in the absence of a formal TFR.

The Drone Scene site is updated constantly – as recently as last week –  and even invites drone fliers who are members of Grey Arrows to add their own anecdotal information based on their latest flight experiences.  All in all, there’s nothing like Drone Scene for keeping drone hobbyists safe and compliant with all local regulations and additional site-specific concerns that could affect the quality of their drone flying experience.

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