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I am looking to hire a drone operator to do some marketing filming and photography; what should I look for?

The drone operator should have the permission of the CAA to carry out Commercial Operations. At the current time, each commercial drone operator who has been granted CAA permission will have a document from the CAA granting permission and setting out conditions for its use. You should ask the operator to show you his or her permission document and discuss how the work might be achieved within the conditions of the permission?

How is ‘Commercial Operations’ defined and what sort of activity is allowed?

The Air Navigation Order defines ‘Commercial Operations’ as: Any purpose, other than commercial air transport or public transport, for which an aircraft is flown if valuable consideration is given or promised for the flight or the purpose of the flight.


At the present time, any activities involving the remunerated carriage of persons, cargo or mail are prohibited to drones although occasionally permission may be given to ‘drop articles’.


The term ‘Commercial Operations’ allows a broad variety of flight applications, predominantly centring on aerial photography or the operation of sensors and other data – gathering devices. The essential question that needs to be asked is “what is the purpose of the (specific) flight?” i.e. “If I were not receiving payment /valuable consideration for making the flight, would it still take place?”


Example 1: A drone operator holding a CAA permission for Commercial Operations is engaged to film or survey a building development site or infrastructure facility. This is clearly within the remit of the permission and the operation can proceed within the limitations and conditions stated on the operator’s permission.


Example 2: An estate agent or builder’s firm wants to use a drone for aerial imagery /survey as part of their service. This also would be considered Commercial Operations even if it only comprised a small part of the service to the customer, e.g. advertising a customer’s house or checking the property for the extent of works required. The operator of the drone would need to have a CAA permission for Commercial Operations. The estate agent or builder’s firm should gain permission or use the services of an existing permission holder (a list of such permission holders is provided on the CAA website).


Whilst every case should be judged on its own merits, some types of arrangements are not generally considered by the CAA to be Commercial Operations:


  • Advertising revenue received as a result of persons visiting a website or social media page where video or photographic stills shot from a drone are displayed /posted. This is because these types of web – pages may be legitimately used to post recreational video material that was not commissioned by another party, but was conceived and wholly funded by the poster. This would not apply if the photographic material had been directly commissioned by another party for the purposes of display or marketing on their website.


  • Generation of self – marketing material to display an object, event or other activity. An individual or business would not usually be considered to be doing Commercial Operations if the flight is provided only for their own use. Imagery generated in this way should not be sold to another party.


Example: A charity, educational establishment, local authority or business acquires a drone which is used to provide aerial imagery for incorporation into their own promotional material. As long as this imagery is not sold on, this is unlikely to be deemed Commercial Work.


  • Any other imagery or data collection task where the video, photographic stills or other data collected, are used exclusively for the drone operator’s own use.


Example: A university research team wants to use a drone to gather survey data or imagery to help with their research project. This is legitimate as long as the research project was not directly funded by a business that intends to use the results of the data for its own business purposes (including any material or research into its products or services). Clearly university research is funded through a variety of means (grants, charitable and alumni donations, etc.) and for varying purposes. The exact arrangements would need to be considered in each case. Where an academic organisation is openly advertising their capabilities to external organisations and a business relationship is entered into with an external organisation, the use of a drone for that purpose is likely to be construed as Commercial Operations. In order to alleviate difficulties with varied funding models, universities and other similar organisations should consider applying for permission from the CAA so that their services can be offered without constraint.

I qualified to fly unmanned aircraft (RPAS) in the UK Armed Services, are there any concessions available to allow me to fly commercial civil unmanned aircraft?

Some concessions are already available (see above). The general rule for these concessions is that the pilot already has qualifications or experience in flying an aircraft in un-segregated UK airspace (i.e. not limited to flying only within military ranges, training areas or on active military service overseas). The CAA is considering various options to accept a wider range of existing military qualifications for pilots of <20kg fixed-wing military RPAS. It is likely that concessions will eventually be made for suitable military small RPAS pilots who have had:

  • Direct, hands-on flying training, logged flight experience and have been granted a military small RPAS qualification and;
  • Have completed appropriate ‘bridging’ elements of the current civil R P AS theory syllabus, plus a flight assessment on a civil drone where necessary.

I already have a pilots’ licence or other aviation pilot qualification (including model flying certificates). Are there any CAA Permission training – concessions available for existing qualifications and experience?

For pilots that already have aviation experience, and in particular, a licence or certificate that allows them to fly in un-segregated airspace (PPL, glider rating, etc.), there are concessions against the theory training element of the NQE course. With such qualifications, it is often only necessary to meet the experience requirement, undertake the practical flight assessment and develop your operations manual.


Concessions are also made for traditional model flyers. The long-established model aircraft scene in the UK has been at the forefront of developing expertise and safe flying practices for small unmanned aircraft and these attributes remain applicable as new electric technology comes into use. At the present time, suitable British Model Flying Association (BMFA) certificates are accepted and although not listed, equivalents from the Scottish Model Association and Large Model Association will also be considered. Some work remains to be done on correlating model flyer certificates to the equivalent for commercial drone operations and there are likely to be some changes in the near future.


The full range of available concessions (acceptable alternative evidence of pilot competency) are set out in more detail in CAP7 22.

Where can I get the training and assessment needed to apply for CAA Permission?

The CAA does not organise or run training and assessment courses itself, but instead approves commercial organisations (National Qualified Entities – NQEs’) to do this in our place.

NQE organisations run either full or restricted modular courses and their final output is to make a recommendation to the CAA as to the pilot’s competence. This recommendation provides the basis for the CAA granting a permission for Commercial Operations. Most NQEs provide the full course and this is suitable for those with no previous aviation training or qualifications.

The subject areas and syllabus, including the practical flight assessment, are listed in CAP722.

What are the benefits of gaining the standard CAA Permission?

There are three main benefits to gaining the standard CAA permission:


  • Receive payment for your services. First of all, in practical terms, you will be able to advertise a legal commercial service and receive payment for performing your services, usually in the provision of aerial filming and photography. This is known as ‘Commercial Operations’ which is defined as: ‘Any purpose, other than commercial air transport or public transport, for which an aircraft is flown if valuable consideration is given or promised for the flight or the purpose of the flight.’ This type of flying doesn’t involve flying paying passengers or transporting mail or other cargo.


  • Reduced limitations on where you can fly. ANO Articles 94 and 95 (listed in Question 4) set strict limits on where camera – equipped drones can fly. Probably the most limiting of these in terms of earning potential and the type of jobs you can do is the requirement for the drone not to be flown “ over or within 150 metres of any congested area” :

A congested area, in relation to a city, town or settlement, means any area which is substantially used for residential, industrial, commercial or recreational purposes.

It is clear that you would then be limited almost exclusively to rural areas; however, the operator must determine if this is the case prior to conducting operations. The CAA cannot advise in this capacity.

The standard CAA Permission recognises this difficulty and gives an automatic concession to dispense with this rule if the drone does not have a Maximum Take – Off Mass (MTOM) of more than 7kg (excluding fuel – but including batteries). In this case, although the drone may be flown within congested areas, the pilot must still comply with the following conditions:

(a) No flight over or within 50 metres of any person, vessel, vehicle or structure that is not ‘under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft’, except that during takeoff and landing this distance may be reduced to 30 metres;

(b) No flight over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons;

  • Availability of minimum aircraft insurance cover in respect of third parties. Insurance specifically for aircraft operators is a requirement of Regulation (EC) 785/2004 ‘Insurance for air carriers and aircraft operators’. Whilst this regulation states that insurance is not required for “model aircraft with an MTOM of less than 20 kg”, the CAA does not regard drones being used for aerial work as ‘model aircraft’ i.e. they are not scale models or other unmanned aircraft being used purely for recreation. Having this insurance cover is an important part of covering any liability in the event of injury or damage to a third – party (along with your normal Public Liability insurance). Many insurance providers require evidence of your competency as a pilot, i.e. you are qualified for a CAA permission or have already had a CAA permission granted before they will extend insurance cover at a nominal rate. It should be borne in mind that insurance to cover any liability in respect of third parties is likely to be invalid if the drone was flown at a location or for a purpose that was not deemed to be legally compliant with the Air Navigation Order (ANO).

Do I need a ‘licence’ to fly a drone for commercial work?

A drone pilot requires the permission of the CAA to undertake commercial work (known as ‘Commercial Operations’). This is also the case for any flight operation with a camera-equipped drone that is intended to fly closer to congested areas, open-air assemblies of people and to people, vessels, vehicles or structures than the distances set out in ANO article 95 (2).

The pilot to needs to:

  • Demonstrate a general understanding of aviation theory

(airmanship, airspace, aviation law and good flying practice).

  • Pass a practical flight assessment (flight test).
  • Develop basic procedures for conducting the type of flight they want to do (including procedures for assessing the safety of launch and flying – sites) and to set these out in a document (Operations Manual).
  • Apply to the CAA for an Annual ‘Permission’ using form SRG1320.

The standard permission is granted in the form of a signed CAA document (.PDF sent to the applicant) and is valid throughout the UK for 12 months and subject to annual renewal. The permission allows flights throughout the UK subject to the conditions and limitations are written into the permission.

Dependant on the weight of the aircraft, the annual permission currently costs between £112 – £224 but does not stipulate a maximum number of aircraft. The renewal cost is reduced for subsequent years. However, applicants should always refer to the CAA Scheme of Charges for the costs at the time of application.

Note the current turn-around time for a standard permission is 28 Working Days, this time scale applies when the CAA has received all required documentation and payment.

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