Guidance on drones

Friday, 20 August, 2021

Commodity watch by policy officer Sarah Morrell

Drones have become a more common sight in our skies for taking aerial pictures and even moving sheep as seen on Clarkson’s Farm. Since the chaos at Gatwick airport in 2019, when the airport was brought to a standstill following the sighting of two drones near the runway, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the regulator for drones, has been clamping down on irresponsible users. Tighter rules governing all drone flying came into effect on 31 December 2020 and the CAA developed the ‘Drone code’. Farmers should make themselves aware of basic rules drone flyers must adhere to, to protect themselves and their property.  

Basic aviation law

When flying a drone, the pilot must keep a minimum horizontal distance of 50m between the drone and people, places, or structures that don't fall under the pilot’s control. The rule on minimum distances to people is different when flying very small drones and model aircraft that are below 250g. Whilst they can lawfully fly closer to and over people, it is good courtesy not to. If you do see a drone less than 50m away from you or your farm buildings, then the law may have been broken. Pilots must also maintain a distance of at least 150m from residential, recreational, commercial, and industrial areas. The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) would also ask that drone pilots do not fly around livestock as it can worry livestock.

Privacy law

You are entitled to not be photographed or filmed in any place where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as your farm or home. However, it is complicated as a drone may be legally entitled to fly over your property, but as you can’t easily see where the camera is pointed, it is hard to tell whether or not you are being filmed.  The camera could be focusing on something in a completely different direction but if you feel or know that the images are of you and/or your property, you should contact the drone operator or the police.

What to do

When it comes to finding out why a drone is being flown nearby, you should firstly speak to the pilot if you can see them. It’s important that you wait until the drone is on the ground as it’s both illegal and potentially dangerous to engage with a pilot while they are flying.

If you can’t see the pilot or don’t want to approach them, then call 101. Commercial drone pilots will normally have informed authorities of their flights especially in sensitive areas such as near airports or other protected public buildings, so there is a good chance that the police will already have the details and be able to reassure you.  If that’s not the case, then they will be able to take all the relevant details to allow them to investigate further if required.

Finally, no matter your concerns, you should never attempt to interfere with a drone or try to bring it down. This is illegal and carries a potential prison sentence.