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Unlawful use of drones - CAA threatens fines of up to £5000

UK AVIATION safety chiefs have warned estate agents they risk hefty fines by using unapproved drone operators to obtain aerial images of luxury properties for sale.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says it is aware of cases where estate agents have “potentially” broken the law by operating drones without a licence. The remotely-operated aircraft are increasingly being used to provide beautiful aerial images of high-end properties.

But the CAA has threatened to prosecute drone operators and companies that employ unapproved and uninsured drone operators, potentially landing them with a fine of up to £5,000.

Drones have become increasingly attractive to estate agents because the costs of hiring helicopters for aerial photography is generally prohibitive. Whilst Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) capable of producing images of sufficient quality for estate agency or general web applications, can be obtained for under a thousand pounds, regulations set out in the UK’s Air Navigation Order require anyone operating unmanned aircraft for commercial applications to first obtain CAA approval. This is where difficulties arise.

The cost of obtaining a Permit to Fly for Aerial work (PFAW) typically runs to thousands of pounds in training, insurance and application fees. In addition, the time taken from initial training to PFAW issue by the CAA, can typically take up to around 6 months. Some photographers used by estate agents are simply unaware of the rules whilst others have chosen to deliberately flaunt them. Besides this breaking the law, such activity presents a real risk to members of the public and property.

“To obtain a PFAW, UAV operators must first undergo two to three days of ground school training with a CAA-approved National Qualified Entity (NQE). Subseqently, having produced detailed flight and safety-related documentation of a standard acceptable to the NQE, the remote pilot is required to pass a comprehensive flight evaluation, designed to demonstrate adherence to safety checks as well as well as the pilot's ability to competently operate the drone in both normal and abnormal conditions. Conditional upon successfully completing these steps, newly qualified UAV pilots may then submit a permit application to the CAA, together with a comprehensive Operations Manual demonstrating how they intend to use the unmanned aircraft, medical declaration/certification and insurance documentation, without which a permit will not be issued.

It should be noted in relation to estate agency applications that even qualified and approved drone operators are generally not permitted to fly within 50m of people or buildings without permission. The CAA has become aware of a number of incidents where estate agents have potentially used unmanned aircraft in close proximity to buildings, over congested areas, without permission and in breach of regulations. “We will be seeking to raise awareness of the rules within the sector.” He continued: “The regulations relating to the use of unmanned aircraft are in place to protect the safety of the public. “Where an operator breaches these regulations and, where we have sufficient evidence, we will take legal action.”

Toby Milbank, of estate agents Strutt & Parker, confirmed that his company only uses properly licensed drone operators. He said: “The drone allowed us to capture a more birds-eye view that gives people a real feel of the vastness and beauty of the of the surrounding countryside, not just the property. We do this now with a lot of grander country houses that come with acreage and the clients love it.” Another agency which has used drones to take photographs of impressive properties on the market is Belfast-based F5 Property Ltd. Director Rachael Flanagan said: "aerial photography using drones provides a superb way of enhancing our listings and augmenting conventional professional photography; our clients are delighted with the response so far to our use of this fantastic and increasingly popular way of showcasing their properties"

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