UK drone regulations 2021: what do I need to do before I can fly?

Everything you need to know about the new UK drone regulations, including what IDs you need to fly, whether you need to take a theory test, and the different drone categories

UK drone regulations
(Image credit: DJI)

The most recent UK drone regulations came into force in December 2020 and affect the pilots of every camera-carrying drone from 248g and upwards. The regulations include Flyer and Operator IDs for certain drones, as well as a Flyer and Operator ID theory test (don't panic – the basic test involved for consumers isn't too taxing).

The new registration requirements for drones and model aircraft relate to all drones with a camera fitted, even those under the original 250g weight limit. So that means you now need a permit to fly pretty much all the drones in our best drone and best cheap drone buying guides, even the amazing little DJI Mini 2 (248g). 

However, the new regulations don’t apply to any drone under 250g that isn’t equipped with a camera since, they are considered toys. This means that you can buy that toy drone from Amazon for your child, but not the tantalising one with a camera on board – unless you apply for a registration on your child’s behalf.

The new UK drone regulations are confusing, so we've put together this guide to help make things a little clearer, and help you figure out whether you need a drone Flyer or Operator ID, and if you need to take a theory test before you can fly. Note, this legislation applies to consumers and commercial drone users in both the UK and Europe. America, and all other countries outside of Europe, have their own regulations, which won't be covered here.

UK drone regulations 2021: Flyer and Operator IDs

The new legislation basically involves requesting a Flyer ID and Operator ID. According to the CAA, there are two requirements and you may need to meet both or you could be fined or worse, sent to prison.

  • If you’ll be flying the drone, you must pass a theory test to get a Flyer ID
  • If you’re the owner of a drone or model aircraft, you must register for an Operator ID
  • You must be 18 or over to get an Operator ID. According to the CAA, ‘if you’re younger than 18 and you own a drone or model aircraft, you must ask your parent or guardian to register for an Operator ID.’
  • The Flyer ID is free and is valid for five years. The Operator ID costs £9 and needs to be renewed every year
  • Both IDs will be emailed to the recipient

UK drone regulations

(Image credit: PowerVision)

UK drone regulations 2021: Flyer and Operator ID theory Test

In order get your Flyer and Operator IDs, you’ll need to sit an online multiple choice theory test – 40 questions – and reach a pass mark of 30. The questions aren’t too taxing but you should at least read the Drone and Model Aircraft Code beforehand. Also be sure to read the exam questions carefully! You can take as long as you like but best not pause for more than 90 minutes or the test will time out. Don’t worry if you fail because you can sit the exam as many times as you like.

Once you’ve passed this test, you’ll be issued with two IDs. You must attach the Operator ID to any drone you’re flying.

You can read everything about the registration process on the CAA website.

Drone regulations: Categories of drone and model aircraft

UK drone regulations

(Image credit: Parrot)

Once you've got your Operator and Flyer IDs, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can now fly anywhere you like – the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) has also created a series of Classes and these need to be strictly adhered to.

The basic Flyer ID allows drone pilots to fly in the Open A1 (fly over people) and A3 (fly far from people) sub-categories which are considered to pose the least risk to the public and property. However there is also an A2 which allows you to fly close to people, but more on that below.

Basic Open A1 and A3 rules

  • Drones must have a take-off mass of less than 25kg
  • Always keep the drone below an altitude of 400 feet
  • Keep the drone at least 50m from people you don’t know though you can fly closer to friends and family
  • If your drone is below 250g in weight (like the DJI Mini 2), you can fly closer than 50m to people you don’t know and even fly over them – with care
  • You cannot fly over crowds
  • Keep at least 150m away from residential, recreational, commercial and industrial areas if flying a drone over 250g. That’s pretty much every decent drone on the market bar the remarkable little DJI Mini 2
  • FPV flight must be performed within visual line of sight
  • The FPV pilot must be accompanied by a spotter who is alongside the pilot. The spotter must not use any form of aided vision like binoculars
  • Absolutely stay well away from airports of any size

Open A2 Certificate of Competency

How to buy the right drone for you: DJI Mavic 2 Pro

(Image credit: DJI)

Now this is where it becomes even more confusing, not least because the subcategory titles don’t flow in a logical order. As we said above, the A1 and A3 subcategories come with a lot of restrictions, yet there’s another subcategory – A2 – that allows flying in areas not covered by the A1 and A3 subcategories.

To fly in the Open A2 subcategory, the pilot must hold an A2 Certificate of Competency (A2 CoC) issued by the CAA. The A2 CoC applies to drones with a take-off mass, including any payload, of less than 2Kg, ie the vast majority of consumer drones. You can arrange to get your A2 CoC qualification via a number of online courses which we’ll list below. 

The single best thing about this new A2 regulation is that there is no longer any differentiation between 'leisure' and 'commercial' drone flights, which means you could start earning money with your drone.

The CAA-approved A2 course itself consists of four online modules – basic principles of flight, operating in congested areas, avoiding collisions, etc – and a multiple-choice theory exam of 30 questions. The A2 CoC qualification is valid for five years. The cost of the A2 course ranges between £149 and £299.

Basic Open A2 rules

  • Permission to fly within Residential, Commercial, Industrial and Recreational areas. This means being allowed to fly from your own private garden
  • You cannot fly within 50m horizontally of any uninvolved persons but you can fly over them at a safe distance
  • You can fly your drone for commercial purposes

Specific and Certified categories

That’s not the end of it. There are two other categories that most likely won’t apply to the vast majority of drone pilots. According to the CAA, the Specific category is for moderate-risk flying and the Certified category is for high-risk, complex flying.

CAA info on the Specific category

CAA info on the Certified category

For more info, we'd recommend the following A2 CoC courses:

Why do we have drone regulations?

If you’ve ever tried flying a remote controlled helicopter, you’ll know how impossibly difficult it is to keep in the air without it crashing into the ground or flying off into a tree. That all changed in 2010 when Parrot launched the AR Drone, a remote controlled four-bladed helicopter-type aircraft that almost flew itself. Soon after, a Chinese company called DJI pulled the original Phantom Vision out of the hat, a drone with a camera fitted to its nose and the world of aerial videography and photography literally took off. Before long, everyone was scrambling to get hold of a camera carrying drone so they could take their own amazing photos and videos from a vantage point previously only possibly from the seat of a full-sized helicopter.

As drone popularity increased tenfold, so did instances of reckless behaviour involving drones being flown in a dangerous fashion near airports, over private property and near crowds. And, as is the way with all things when stuff gets out of hand, UK and European authorities stepped in to put a stop to it and create a tranche of drone legislations that affect both consumers and commercial users in both the UK and Europe. America – and indeed all other countries outside of Europe – have different regulations, so if you're visiting this article from outside of Europe, or planning on travelling with your drone, make sure you do your own digging into the local laws.