What are drones?

Lynn Wright / 24 May 2016

Drones are taking to the UK skies in increasing numbers. We explain what’s involved with buying and flying a drone.



Unmanned flying aircraft – known as drones – have fallen dramatically in price and can now be easily bought online and in high-street shops. Once the preserve of the military, rapid advances in drone technology and ease of use mean drones have moved far beyond their initial purpose in the 1930s as RAF target practice.

What is a drone?

A drone is the name for any type of unmanned aircraft flown in the UK. Unlike a radio-controlled plane or helicopter, drones are classified as aircraft rather than toys – which means they have to fly by Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules. Drones sold on the high street are typically lightweight, inexpensive radio-controlled aircraft. Typically sporting four rotors which helps keep them stable, drones are designed to hover, right themselves, and be easy to fly so that even drone novices can be up and running easily.

Drones typically have HD cameras on board for recording video and taking photos, which can be downloaded to a computer. Some drones include iPhone and Android apps that let you control them from a smartphone or tablet, and even view the scene from the camera live on the smartphone screen.

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Who can buy and use a drone in the UK?

Anyone can fly a drone in the UK, although you’ll need to follow the Dronecode – a set of rules from the CAA to ensure you fly a drone safely. Drones that weigh less 20kg have fewer restrictions, but more powerful drones over 20kg have restrictions as to where they can be flown.

What to look for when buying the best drone?

Drones range from less than £50 to over £1,000 – and you typically get what you pay for. Cheap drones are ideal for beginners and more suited to flying indoors. Cheap drone brands such as Syma and Hubsan offer great value drones for less than £100. More expensive brands, such as Parrot, offer feature-packed drones from around £200. The Parrot AR Drone 2.0 includes smartphone controls and HD camera. Look for drones with bumpers around the rotor blades, easily replaced parts, and ability to quickly change via a USB port on a computer.

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What are the rules for flying a drone?

If you’re flying a drone that weighs less than 20kg, then you’re not allowed to use it to film within 50m of a person, structure or vessel, or within 150m of a congested area. You also have to keep the drone within your sight – this is typically less than 400m in altitude, and 500m away from you. For larger drones of 20kg and higher, you’ll need to fly them within special designated areas determined by the CAA.

Who else can fly drones?

Lots of companies are getting in on the drone flying act. Delivery companies such as Amazon are experimenting with using drones to deliver small packages, while media companies such as the BBC are using them to film sports events. As more drones take to the skies, the CAA has been monitoring their numbers to assess their risks.

What are the risks of drones?

For beginners, the risk is related to damaging the drone or crashing it into property or a person due to inexperienced flying skills. It’s best to learn to fly a drone in wide, open spaces away from people and structures. More serious risks include larger drones impacting with a commercial aircraft, and questions of privacy as drones are able to film locations as a spy-in-the-sky.

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The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.