top of page
  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

10 things you must know before flying a drone

With drones becoming ever more popular, I thought this week we would look at some of the most important things to understand before your buy or use a drone. 

I will be honest in that I am by no means an expert when it comes to drones, but I have gained enough knowledge and experience to be safe and legal (which is not always the case with drone flyers!). So, here are my top ten things that I think you need to know before you buy or fly a drone. Note that these are UK specific; each country has it's own set of laws and rules. 

1. Cost and size matters

If you're just thinking of getting a drone, it is very important to understand that cost and size DO matter (a lot!). Firstly, with drones you very much get what you pay for; a £40 drone from China is going to be hard to fly if there is even a breath of wind, have a rubbish camera, and have none of the safety features of more expensive drones. 

Secondly, I would strongly recommend that for a first drone you get one under 250g as this gives you more freedom to fly near or above people and buildings than drones over this weight. 

For most beginners, I would recommend buying one of the older models of DJI Mini (such as the mini 2) which can be picked up on Argos currently for £269 (with a controller) and potentially for even less second hand on sites like Ebay (but beware of the usual fakes and scams!). 

2. You must register with the CAA

The CAA owns and manages the UK airspace that you will be using with your drone, and unless you buy a drone less that 250g which does not have a camera you MUST pass a very basic online test (to show you know the basic rules) and get a flyer ID. As you will presumably be the person responsible for your drone, you should also apply for an operator ID at the same time. 

There are more details on the CAA website here

It is illegal to fly without having the relevant ID's and it's useful to keep them handy in case you are challenged so that you can demonstrate that you have all the legal registrations. I also print out my operator ID (with my phone number) and attach it to each of my drone batteries so that if my drone is lost, the finder knows how to contact me!

3. Learn the basics of how to fly your drone

I see so many photos of drone disasters on Facebook, from beginners to try and run before they can walk, crashing their drones on day one of owning it! Get to know how to fly it in a safe environment with no obstacles around, such as an open field (try asking your local farmer!) NOT by flying it first in your lounge at home, at the top of a cliff or on a harbourside by water (all of which have resulted in immediate crashes and loss of the drone in examples i've seen recently!). Learn the basic operations such as take off and landing, and what the main control buttons do before you try and do anything complex. 

4. Understand your drone's safety features

If you've bought a half decent drone, then t is likely to have a number of safety features that will help to protect the drone (and other people) but only if you know how to use them. For example, most DJI drones set a GPS point when you take off, so that if the drone battery gets low, or it loses signal with the controller, it will come back to the home point. However, you need to understand how to configure this properly; for example, if you set the return to home height at 20m then the drone will rise or drop to 20m before coming home. That's great, except if there is a 25 metre high tree between you and the drone! So, make sure the return to home height is higher than any local obstacles.

Another great safety feature on many drones is obstacle avoidance; the drone will detect and avoid things in its path. However, on some drones these only work in certain directions (e.g. on my Mini 3 Pro drone these operate in front, behind and below the drone but NOT to the sides) and also the sensors cannot detect small objects such as electrical wires or thin twigs. It's therefore really important to understand what your drone can and cannot do!

5. Understand where you can fly (part 1, take off & landing)

One of the things I found most confusing when I started out with a drone was where I could take off and land my drone from. Although this is not an exhaustive list of do's and don'ts hopefully it will provide a good starting point. Note that as a drone flyer it is YOUR responsibility to know and abide by all relevant laws and rules!

- You CAN usually take off from any private land IF you have the landowners express permission (and there are no air space restrictions - see later)

- You CAN usually take off from any public land, including beaches, road laybys, parks etc (although local council bylaws may remove this permission)

- You CAN usually take off in UK National Parks (but Dartmoor is the exception where a local bylaw has been used to ban all drones)

- You CAN take off from your garden but be aware of privacy issues unless your house is isolated!  

You generally CAN'T take off and land:

- Where you don't have landowner permission

- Any National Trust land

- Dartmoor! (see above)

- Sites of Special Scientific Interest (much of our coastline) although this depends on the detail of the SSSI (e.g. if it's for plant life it's generally OK, but if it's for bird life you could prosecuted for disturbing wildlife!)

- Anywhere where privacy might be an issue, as you are covered by GDPR laws (so no flying up to your neighbours windows!)

- Near airports or sensitive sites such as prisons, MOD sites etc (see air space considerations later)

6. Understand where you can fly (part 2, air space restrictions)

The second part of where you can fly legally is having an understanding of the air space. The quickest and safest way to do this is to use the official CAA Drone Assist App (on Android and Iphone). This shows up to date airspace restrictions (i.e. where you can and can't legally fly). An example screenshot of my local area is shown below.  

Red areas are where you CANNOT fly (e.g. around airports) - although it is sometimes possible to apply for special permission in advance.

Amber areas show there is an increased risk of encountering other aircraft and you MAY be able to fly but should check the details (you can press on the map for more info)

Green areas show where it's OK to fly, although even here you should always keep your wits about you - e.g. if an air ambulance suddenly appears (it won't be on the app!) then you need to get out of the way quickly (usually by reducing height)!    

7. Does the weather matter?

Having spent money on your shiny drone, it's important to learn what weather conditions it is (and isn't!) sensible to fly in. Most drones are delicate pieces of electronics and not waterproof, so it should be fairly obvious what sort of conditions you shouldn't fly in, but since I keep seeing people on Facebook surprise that their drone has crashed in a hailstorm, I thought I should cover the basics!

1. Avoid moisture! If it's raining, or you can see a rain shower coming then don't fly - it won't take much rain for your drone to stop in mid air and crash. Similarly for snow, and fog. 

2. Avoid very low temperatures. You might be OK in sub zero temperatures if the air is dry, but if the air is sub zero and moist, your propellers could ice up causing you drone to crash. So be extra careful in these conditions.

3. Be wary of strong wind. Although many drones can cope with some wind (usually gusts of up to around 21 mph), be aware that if wind is too strong, you could have difficulty bringing the drone back to you before it runs out of battery! Also be aware that wind increases with height, so if it's quite windy at the surface, it could be very windy higher up. 

A useful free app to give you some idea of if the wind conditions are suitable is the UAV Forecast App (see screenshot below)   

8. Are there any other laws to know about?

The simple answer is yes! The CAA website has lots of info, but a good starting point is reading up on the DRONE CODE. There is an excellent introductory PDF by the CAA here

A few of the rules that it's most important to know about are:

- You cannot legally fly higher than 120 metres above the Earth's surface (this is to ensure you don't come into conflict with helicopters and aircraft)

- Always keep your drone in sight, and make sure you have good visibility of the surrounding airspace. 

- If your drone is more than 250g in weight you must not fly within 50 metres of people, or 150 metres of houses. However, if it is less than 250g then you can do these things BUT you must not fly over crowds of people. 

9. What kit do I need apart from the drone?

If you look on Amazon, there are huge numbers of adverts trying to sell you accessories for your drone - everything from landing gear to fancy skins to make it look pretty! In my experience, there are only a few items that you really need (apart from the drone) to start having fun with your drone. These are:

- A controller! Some adverts just sell the drone, but you will need a compatible controller; either a dedicated controller with a screen, or a controller where you plug in your phone and use an App to control the drone. 

- Several batteries! To keep weight down, batteries are usually quite small and only contain about enough charge for around 20 minutes flying time. Since you don't want to push your luck and wait until it's almost flat to bring the drone back, this could mean as little as 15 minutes proper flying time. As batteries also take hours to recharge, I would suggest getting at least 3 batteries, if not more (I have 5 which gives me a good  70-90 minutes total flying time.

- A multiple battery charger (for all those batteries!)

- A hard case. As you've spent lots of money on all this expensive (and delicate)drone kit, I would recommend a hard case to keep it secure and safe whilst your transporting it around.  

10. Is it worth all the effort?

If you've got to point 10 in this guide, your head might be spinning and you might be wondering if it's really worth getting a drone if you don't have one already - it sounds like such a hassle! Well, my simple response is a big fat YES! They are SO much fun, and as long as you learn the basic rules and regulations, you shouldn't have any problems.

Drones give you a unique view of the landscape, and are an invaluable addition to any photographers kit bag. Although not appropriate to all shoots (it would be easy to end up with lots of borings snaps) in some situations, they can give outstanding results of views that simply can't be seen from the ground. The view below, of a tractor mowing a field of spring grass is the perfect example to end on....

Want to jump-start your learning?

Don't forget that if you want some direct help with your photography, I offer a range of 1-2-1 photography courses for Devon based folks. If you're not nearby then I also  offer residential weekends for beginners or intermediate photographers.

A student learning photography on a Devon beach, with Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography

14 views0 comments


bottom of page