Drone laws in the UK have been settled, if complex, for the past few years. To make money from drone flights you have needed a permission for commercial operations (PfCO) from the CAA. The PfCO, even with price drops recently, is an expensive and involved qualification, requiring practical exams and writing an operations manual. This is all set to change from the 1st of January 2021 though, with new processes and qualifications coming in.

There are a lot of in-depth articles out there that explain these changes in excellent detail. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of acronyms though, so we’ve put together 5 general changes you will notice, as well as a rundown of changes for popular drones.

Commercial flights with the Mavic 2 are about to become a lot easier

A PfCO is no longer needed to earn money from drone flights

The new rules are based around risk, not commercial vs non-commercial. Existing PfCO holders will get an additional permission, allowing them to keep using larger drones such as the Inspire 2 with fewer restrictions. Insurance will still be required, but that will likely be available on a per flight basis from providers

There are two new qualifications, the A2CofC and the GVC

The A2CofC is a brand new qualification that will allow people with smaller drones much more latitude in how they fly. It is theory only, can be delivered online and is much cheaper than the PfCO. The GVC is a much more in depth qualification that allows for operations with higher risk to take place, such as flying drones with reduced line of sight and in other ways

There are 3 new categories of drone use based on risk

  • A1 Category – “fly over people”. This category is for low risk drones that are light weight (>250g), or have been designed to minimise risk. Allows for flight close to uninvolved people, but not over organised groups
  • A2 Category – “fly near people”. For medium weight drones (<4kg), which covers most popular models. Allows flight to within 5m horizontally in certain situations. The operator must have the A2CofC qualification.
  • A3 Category – “fly away from people”. For larger drones, up to 25kg. Largely the same rules as the existing drone code (150m from ‘congested areas’

All 3 categories have the same maximum height, which has not changed (400ft/120m). There is provision to allow overflight of ‘obstacles’ higher than 400ft though, so long as the drone stays close to it.

Drones will also have their own categories, from C0 to C4.

The ‘bubble’ has been replaced by a ‘cylinder’.

While the new rules allow for distances less than the current 50m in some cases, they also no longer allow overflight of people, apart from with lightweight drones. This could make sticking to the rules in built-up areas with the A2CofC a lot harder than it appears at first.

This ‘cylinder’ restriction doesn’t apply to the grandfathered PfCO holders, or holders of the new GVC qualification. This will give them a definite advantage in many situations, especially with larger drones.

Drones have been assigned categories, and will be certified

You cannot currently buy a drone with the certification that will be needed going forwards. “Legacy” drones, ie those that you currently own, are being given a period until 31st Dec 2022, after which they will only be allowed to be flown in the A3 Category (ie 150m from people). There is no mechanism to allow for ‘backdated’ certification, which is something to bear in mind if you are looking to invest.

Going forward drones will be categorised into one of 5 categories based on weight and features that will decide which one of the 3 (A1, A2 and A3) flight categories they can fly in.

  • C0 – Less than 250g, low speed (>42.5mph), and flying close to pilot (>120m away)
    • Will be able to operate in A1 category, with minimal requirements
  • C1 – Less than 900g, low speed (>42.5mph), meet other reqs about noise, remote id and “safe design”
    • Will be able to operate in A1 category, with minimal requirements
  • C2 – Less than 4kg, selectable low speed (6.7mph) mode, meet other reqs about noise, remote ID and “safe design”
    • Will be able to operate in the A2 category with the A2CofC qualification
  • C3 – Less than 25kg, other reqs such as noise etc
    • Will be able to operate in A2 category with minimal requirements
  • C4 – Less than 25kg, with minimal automation (classic style model aircraft)
    • Will be able to operate in A2 category with minimal requirements

The table below shows all of these combinations in detail:

How will it affect my drone?

In this section, we’ll run through a few of the most popular drones currently in use. It’s important to remember though that all of the current drones are not certified, so will only be able to be used under the transitional rules.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro

The DJI Mavic 2 family is one of the most popular drones out there, with good reason. The 1″ sensor and 10-bit recording on the Pro gives it amazingly good video quality for its size.

Both drones are a very similar weight, coming in at 907g for the Pro and 905g for the Zoom. As it will not be certified under the new rules this will put them into the A2 transitional, which will allow flights to within 50m horizontally of uninvolved people when flown with the A2CofC certification.

This will be a huge improvement for people without a PfCO, as it will (depending on insurance!) mean they can both work commercially with the drone and fly a lot closer than the 150m from congested areas they were allowed before.

There is a big limitation compared to the PfCO though, which is the cylinder vs bubble. The A2 operating requirements specifically disallow overflight of people, whereas the PfCO operates on a 50m bubble meaning that, with suitable precautions, you can overflying uninvolved people at height.

The inspire 2 is one of the most popular higher end commercial drones

DJI Inspire 2

The Inspire 2 is one of the most popular drones for commercial operators. It has the ability to record video in ProRes and RAW, and the interchangeable lenses offer it a flexibility far beyond its size.

It has a maximum take off mass of 4.25kg, the same as 17 DJI Mini 2’s! This unfortunately means that it will fall into the A3 transitional category, so restrictions of 150m away from pretty much everything. If you want the quality that the Inspire 2 provides beyond the smaller drones, you will need to maintain a PfCO or take the new GVC route.

DJI Mavic Air 2

The Mavic Air 2 is another super popular option, as it is smaller and cheaper than the Mavic 2 series, while retaining awesome image quality.

Despite coming in nearly 400g lighter than the Mavic Pro 2, at 570g, it will be in the A2 transitional category as well. The weight limit for legacy drones to fit into the A1 transitional category, which allows flights with no horizontal limits, is 500g.

DJI Mini 2

The DJI Mini 2 is one of DJI’s newest drones, coming out on November 4th. It packs an impressive punch for its size, being able to film in 4k and take 12mpx photos.

The take-off weight of the Mini 2 is less than 250g, which means it gets into the A1 legacy category. This allows the overflight of people, with the only major restriction being no overflight of ‘organised groups’ (This is a broad definition, as well as crowds at gigs concerts it includes shopping streets, beaches etc). It also means that unlike the transitional categories for drones >250g, it will remain flyable in A1 indefinitely.

This is obviously a huge change from what is currently available. The restrictions on this little drone will be less than what even OSC commercial ops fly under, with significantly less regulatory burden. The big question will be if the quality of the drone holds up for any serious work, but it will definitely open up new possibilities to a wider group of people.

The other major consideration is insurance. It remains to be seen if it will be possible to get suitable commercial insurance (that is required for any commercial flying) without relevant qualifications such as the A2CofC.

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has helped clarify how you can use your drone, or a hired drone, under the new regulations. It is an exciting time, with drone filming becoming a lot more legally accessible to a wider range of filmmakers. One thing is still certain though: if you want professional-level footage, hire someone who is an experienced professional.

One major consideration that is still unclear is that flying drones of any size commercially will require suitable insurance. The requirements from the insurers for those flying the smallest drones such as the DJI Mini 2 remain to be seen.

Our policy for renting drones post 1st of January will be that you have to show you have valid insurance for what you want to achieve. We can work with you to investigate your needs and suggest a suitable drone.

We also have a CAA PfCO, and multiple qualified highly experienced pilots. Take a look at our crewing page for more details