Chris Willson / Alamy Stock Photo

Drone laws, rules and regulations

The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles / Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAV, UAS or ‘drones’) for photography use has risen sharply in recent years. This is mainly down to advances in affordable technology within the sector and the fact that it’s now possible to produce extremely high quality photography from smaller and smaller devices.

One thing that hasn’t kept up with the advances in technology is the legal framework surrounding the use of drones, and it’s something that’s always evolving. What’s legal in one country may not be legal in another and drone laws are developing at a high pace. This means it’s messy out there and it’s hard to find definitive information that will be 100% relevant to you.

Many people now realise it’s not legal to simply buy a photography drone then go straight out to start flying and shooting stock, but many don’t. In this post I’ll outline the basic rules, laws and principles with a focus on the United Kingdom and the United States, but wherever you are make sure you get up to date with the current drone laws from the relevant authorities.

I also want to put an “NB” in here – this general info is correct at the time of writing but always make sure you’re set up to fly safely and legally before you head out with your drone – it’s 100% your responsibility to do so! If you’re in the UK you need to get familiar with the guidelines set out by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and in the US it’s the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Consider safety at all times

Regardless if you’re flying recreationally or commercially, be safe. As the FAA states, flying a drone in the national airspace system means that you’re now part of the aviation community. This is an area where safety always comes first. There are some general rules like making sure you keep your drone in your line of sight and not flying over crowds of people.

Get legal

Even if you’re just flying for recreation, you need to make sure you’re flying within the law. In the US, all drones need to be registered with the FAA before they are flown outdoors and you need permission if you are going to be flying commercially. “Commercially” is a loose term but essentially means any activity where you will receive money and in the UK the commonly used terminology is ‘valuable consideration’ – translated, this means ‘anything of value’ so money, a favour, goods in return etc. In plain English, if you’re flying a drone for photography or video and you are getting anything in return for it you need to be qualified, registered and have permission for aerial work.

In the UK, this permission is referred to as a PfAW certificate and you’re required to get this renewed annually via the CAA. This helpful post from Hexcam outlines the UK guidelines nicely and tells you what you need to do to obtain your permissions.

In the US, in order to fly commercially you’ll need something called a 333 exemption grant from the FAA. I did warn you early on in this post that things are a little messy didn’t I? Well the FAA are looking at simplifying the process for those of you in the US but it’s slow going. This great post from UAV Coach outlines all you need to know about permissions for flying commercially in the US and how to obtain your 333 exemption.

This all might seem a bit daunting, and it is, but it helps ensure that pilots are operating safely. The two main challenges here are that getting your qualifications and paperwork in order costs thousands and, in the US at least, takes a long time to process.

If by any chance you’re wondering if shooting stock (stills or video) with a drone is classed as commercial then I can tell you: Yes, it is!

Get insured

If operating commercially it’s essential that you’re covered and have liability insurance. The level of cover you obtain depends on what you fly and where but don’t forget to obtain this. There’s a fantastic guide on obtaining drone insurance from UAV Coach that’s really useful if you’re in the US but it also covers lots of the general principles that apply to all. Elsewhere, lots of companies offer specific drone insurance for varying needs so do your research in this area as to what you’ll need depending on your personal circumstances.

Be wary of No Drone Zones

It goes without saying that you should not be flying your drone within any type of restricted airspace. Sometimes the restrictions are temporary (e.g during a certain event) and other times they are permanent (e.g in and around military airbases). The best advice I can offer is, again, do your research before you fly. Even if you’re licenced and insured you can still face prosecution and big fines for operating in airspace where flying is not permitted and there are more restrictions in place than you may currently assume.

Shooting for Alamy

First, you need to make sure you’re operating legally and shooting stock (stills or video) with all the above in mind. After that, the usual quality rules apply when shooting stock for Alamy.

Further reading

There’s masses of useful information on drone laws all across the web and I’d like to share some of the useful resources I’ve referred to whilst putting together this post:

A photographer, digital media degree holder and part of the Alamy Content team for 15 years. James has a strong interest in all things visual and is our Head of Content.