The reason it is hard is the vagueness, and stupidity, of the laws around this whole area.
There are general requirements to ensure flight is safe and to avoid collisions and so on, but the main two clauses of the Air Navigation Order 2009 are section 166 and 167. These two rules cover, basically, drones, and drones that are equipped for surveillance.
The drone we have is a Phantom 4 which falls in the ≤7kg weight class. What is interesting is that if it did not have a camera, only clause 166 would apply, and this has some moderately flexible rules...
- Don't drop anything from the aircraft!
- Only fly if you think it safe, duh.
- Fly only in visual line of sight (deemed to be 500m horizontally which you cannot really see the drone at, but can see other aircraft, which is what matters). In practice you need not to fly so high as to be unable to see it as well.
- Don't fly commercially without a PFAW (Permission For Aerial Works) from CAA
Update: It is worth pointing out that there are a load of general restrictions, such as not endangering other aircraft, which effectively place some limitations on what you do even under section 166. Even so, 166 is pretty flexible.
Section 167 is where it gets odd. Bear in mind these regulations are meant to relate to safety. This section applies to drones with surveillance equipment (e.g. a camera) which my Phantom 4 has, as do many drones. Why separate safety rules apply for drones with a camera is beyond me! The rules are much more onerous, covering those in 166 (above) plus...
- Not over, or within 150m of a congested area
- Not over, or within 150m of an organised assembly of 1,000 or more people
- Not within 50m of a vessel, vehicle, or structure not under your control (30m during take-off or landing)
- Not within 50m or a person (apart from pilot of persons directly under his control)
In practice it seems to be interpreted that the 30m applies for take-off and landing not the 50m, and in practice it seems the structure you have control over is allowed within the 150m, but not within 150m of a neighbour or someone you do not control! Well, we hope, but the way the rules are interpreted is not 100% clear!
There were interesting discussion of vehicles and hence roads. Being 50m from a road could be a pain, but actually the rule is 50m from a vehicle. So we think, if the road is clear of vehicles (that are not under our control) we could take off near the road and get to 50m high. The rules do not say the 50m or 150m is horizontal, so 50m high and not actually over a vehicle would seem to be OK. But to make sure you are safe you have to have some procedures to cover checking the road is clear during take off and landing near the road somehow.
Another discussion is congested areas and the definition which is: ‘Congested area’ in relation to a city, town or settlement, means any area which is substantially used for residential, industrial, commercial or recreational purposes;
This seems to cover basically everywhere and every type of "area" or land unless not actually a city, town or settlement. So I guess a house or castle in the middle of nowhere is not a congested area. Maybe a field in the middle of nowhere is not (though fields are commercial). One interesting point though was the time frame. The idea that our office, on a Sunday morning, is not at that time being used substantially for commercial or industrial use as nobody is working in any of the offices. If that is a valid interpretation then we simply have to contend with the 50m rule for structures and vehicles not in our control. I also wonder what one has to do to justify "control" of a structure! If an adjacent office is empty can I just "take control" of it (i.e. have someone to watch out for any people approaching it and tell them we have a drone over head). So could I control all of the buildings within 50m of me as they are empty? This may mean my test flight at the office on a Sunday morning, and even over the road leading to the office, may have been 100% legit even with no PFAW. If so, cool, a place (and time) to practice.
The good news is the 150m of congested area goes down to 50m if you get a PFAW and possibly lower if you get one of the extended permissions.
Apparently, one of the other extended permissions is night flying. But I have failed to find any restriction on night flying in the legislation, so I may ask that one tomorrow. Maybe some of these restrictions are included in the basic PFAW as caveats and hence why one needs extended permission for such.
But it all makes no sense - what the hell makes a drone with a camera unsafe around people, vehicles, structures, congested areas, but a drone without a camera is not inherently unsafe around such things and so not needing of such restrictions?
One idea for practice was to put a lens cap or tape over camera on Phantom 4. I would argue that as equipped, at that point, it is not capable of surveillance and so not subject to 167. Not an argument to have with a judge maybe, but not a bad argument I feel. That would allow me to practice in my back garden then as clause 167 would not apply.
Overall it is not a good mix of pedant, techie, and the law, one way or another.
It is shitty wording and shitty legislation, clearly. The good news is that the FAA (US Federal Aviation Authority) are relaxing rules and the EU are expected to make rules that will replace the UK rules next year. Hopefully these new rules will at least be sensibly drafted and hence much clearer.
There was one other useful (and cost saving) point. The PFAW is something the company obtains, having produced an operational manual. It can then engage any pilot that has passed the theory and practical tests. This is slightly odd as part of the practical test is confirming we can follow the operational manual, when in theory we may not know who we are going to work for an what operational manual they will have! It is also the company that gets the commercial drone insurance. Given we are training two pilots, this does save some money.