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Drones and Legal Challenges

image of a drone

Blog post by Emilio Kyprianou

The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for both recreational and commercial purposes is on the rise in the United Kingdom, particularly the widely sold Quadcopter style. As this trend continues to grow, the government has taken steps to establish laws that prioritise the safety of both drone operators and the general public. This blog aims to offer an overview of the current drone regulations in the UK, highlighting legal concerns that may arise from future advancements in the miniaturisation of drones, as well as from passenger drones serving as a viable substitute for both conventional passenger aircraft and private cars/taxis.

On May 30th, 2018, the UK government released amendments to the Air Navigation Order 2016 (ANO) concerning small unmanned aircraft (SUA), commonly known as drones.  To provide some context, the UK was once a pioneer in drone regulation. The ANO 2009 established the first set of drone-specific regulations, along with the accompanying CAP722 (Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK Airspace – Guidance), which established the methods and standards for operating drones safely in UK airspace.

From November 30th, 2019, a new system of mandatory registration and competency obligations began. The obligations only pertain to small unmanned aircraft (SUA) operators with a mass of 250 grams or more without fuel, which is lighter than a can of beans. Toy drones are implicitly excluded from these requirements. 1

Current Regulations

Consistent with UK drone law, the majority of drones or model aircrafts must be registered before being flown outdoors. The registration process entails passing a theoretical test to procure a flyer identification (ID) and enrolling for an operator ID if responsible for a drone or model aircraft. This is intended to ensure that drone operators have a good understanding of the safety regulations and can safely and responsibly fly their drones.

Apart from registration, drone operators must also comply with the regulations stipulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for drone use in the UK. These regulations encompass flying a drone within line of sight, maintaining a safe distance from people and property, and refraining from flying a drone above 400 feet or in restricted airspace. The Air Navigation Order 2016 amendments have resulted in noteworthy changes that include the relocation of numerous drone regulations to the "Unmanned Aircraft Regulation”. This regulation, which originated from the EU (UK Regulation (EU) 2019/947), was preserved even after the UK's departure from the EU.2


Enforcement of UK drone law is carried out by both the CAA and the police. The CAA possesses the authority to take enforcement action against drone operators who flout the regulations, ranging from warnings to seizure of drones and even imprisonment. The police can similarly take enforcement action if they suspect that the requirements of the law have not been met. The nature of this action is dependent on the circumstances and may be taken against the operator, remote pilot, or both.

The enforcement of these regulations is executed by the CAA and police, and non-compliance can have severe repercussions. While the deployment of drones in military operations raises ethical questions, the UK government is adopting measures to guarantee the safe and responsible use of drones. It is noteworthy that police drone operations lie outside the scope of UK Regulation (EU) 2019/947 but must still adhere to the requirements of the Air Navigation Order 2016, which entail avoiding recklessly or negligently conducting oneself in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or any person or property.3

Passenger Drones

As the progression of drone technology proceeds at an expedited pace, the likelihood of forthcoming drones possessing the capability to transport passengers or goods on a magnitude comparable to that of conventional aircraft becomes increasingly probable. Therefore, it stands to reason that a reassessment of the definition of a drone would be required in order to precisely reflect this technological evolution.  As the dimensions and capabilities of drones continue to expand, UK laws governing drone usage may need to be modified to reflect the changing landscape, with the introduction of new rules and licensing requirements, particularly for passenger drones. The Civil Aviation Authority may need to modify its existing regulations to ensure the safe and efficient operation of these larger drones, thereby reducing potential safety hazards to the public. 4

Under current UK law, drones above a specific weight limit require registration with the Civil Aviation Authority and must comply with regulations such as maintaining a minimum distance from people and buildings. However, the emergence of larger and more capable drones may require additional regulations and guidelines to ensure their safe operation. The UK government must also consider the potential legal implications of using passenger drones, particularly with regards to insurance and liability in case of accidents. As drone technology continues to evolve, it is vital for UK regulators to remain vigilant and adapt to these changes to ensure the safety and security of the public.

Nano/ Swarm Drones

The burgeoning developments in drone technology and the miniaturisation of drones is a significant development. The United States is currently working on creating small, flying 'nano' robots that can swarm together with remarkable agility and precision. However, like any technological advancement, this development poses complex legal concerns that need to be addressed, particularly if this technology gets into the wrong hands. The use of nano drones may challenge existing laws and regulations, particularly regarding privacy, surveillance, and security. Due to the risk that these drones may evade detection and engage in surveillance activities on individuals or sensitive locations, there is a potential threat to privacy and national security. Hence, lawmakers and regulatory bodies must be proactive in anticipating the legal implications and ensuring that the use of nano drones is regulated in a way that prioritises public safety and safeguards individual rights.5

The possibility of terrorists and rogue nations utilising swarms of drones to carry out attacks cannot be dismissed, particularly with advancements in 3D printing technology that could make it easy to produce drones at home. Although it may take several decades, it's probable that regulatory bodies will need to enforce controls on 3D printing technology to prevent the unmonitored and uncontrolled production of such drones. The potential use of homemade "swarm" nano drones for acts of terrorism and assassination raises ethical and legal concerns that make it necessary for governments to establish regulations that restrict their use. These threats underscore the importance of taking an open-minded and forward-thinking approach when dealing with emerging technologies like swarm nano drones.6


As the CAA updates the Airspace Modernisation Strategy, and further studies are being conducted by the Law Commission, it is clear drones will be playing a larger role in our lives moving forward. Notwithstanding the challenges posed by evolving drone technology, the integration of new types of drones into the wider aviation system could result in new opportunities for innovation and economic growth in the drone industry. These drones could foster the expedient transportation of goods, reduce traffic congestion on roadways, and create fresh prospects for businesses.7

To conclude, as technology continues to advance, it is essential to continually assess and amend the definition of drones and their accompanying laws. While changes in regulations may present challenges for regulatory and enforcement agencies, it is crucial to recognise the potential for growth and innovation in the drone industry if these larger drones are effectively regulated. Thus, as technological advancements continue to augment the capabilities of drones, it is imperative for lawmakers & regulators to constantly reassess existing laws and regulations governing their operation.


1 Drones: how to fly them safely and legally

2 Amendments to the Air Navigation Order

3  Not pulling their punches : magistratescourts and unlimited fines for breach of Air Navigation Order provisions

4  OK, whos brave enough to fly in this passenger drone?

Nano drone tech is advancing

6  The US Navy wants swarms of thousands of small drones

7  Next steps for drone regulation and use in the UK CAA, NATS, SASIG, Ofcom, & Law Commission 31st Jan. 23



image Emilio Kyprianou

Emilio Kyprianou

My name is Emilio, I am of Greek Cypriot descent and enjoy riding and maintaining motorcycles. 

Previously I have studied Psychology with the Open University and was involved in property management before signing up to the OU’s Law program.