The sprightly unmanned devices have even been used to ferry wedding rings to happy couples – during the ceremony – and could one day be called upon to deliver Domino’s Pizzas to guests at the reception afterwards, if required.
Last week, Google got in on the act with news it is also testing drones to deliver goods.
The potential for photographers and videographers of the ‘flying camera’ has not gone unnoticed either. See our guide to drone photography.
Business is brisk, for one manufacturer at least. Not surprising, perhaps, when you can pick up a basic AA battery-powered model for less than £350, with a GoPro camera mount, plus spare propellers.
Photographic drone maker DJI Innovations, based in China, says its sales have grown as much as five times year-on-year since 2009.
DJI employs 500 staff worldwide. Customers include the BBC, which used one of its Hexacopter models to garner footage of Brazil ahead of the World Cup, explains DJI spokesman Michael Perry.
So, what are the rules on drone operation, and can anyone use them?
Photographers who plan to use a small unmanned aircraft (20kg or less) for commercial purposes require permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
The CAA will ask to see an up-to-date operations manual and evidence that the ‘pilot’ is competent.
Evidence of safety skills is provided by the Basic National UAS Certificate for Small Unmanned Aircraft, which can be obtained from EuroUSC, a Hertfordshire firm that requires applicants to undergo a flight test and sit a ground-based exam.
Certificates can also be obtained from Liverpool-based Resource Group, which issues the Remote Pilot Qualification – Small.
The CAA tells Amateur Photographer (AP) it has granted 208 permissions to drone users since 2010. A list of users, published HERE by the CAA, includes the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
However, obtaining the necessary qualifications comes at a price.
An aerial photography business would have to pay £840 (including VAT) for a two-day Ground Course and Theory Examination run by EuroUSC.
This is before an Operational Assessment & Flight Operations Examination, which costs £420.
If you have a drone with an operational weight over 150kg – unlikely unless you plan to use one for, say, military surveillance, then you are also obliged to pay an Assurance of Airworthiness fee, which is upwards of £2,280, depending on the client’s needs, through EuroUSC.
Hobbyists, however, don’t need CAA permission, unless they plan to fly a drone close to people or objects.
‘Specifically, this means flight over or within 150 metres of any congested area, over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons, or flight within 50 metres of any person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the pilot,’ states the CAA.
Flights are also restricted to 400 feet above surface-level, unless appropriate air traffic control unit permission is obtained.
Provided users adhere to the distance guidance (outlined above), drones weighing 20kg or less can be used for personal use without CAA approval. However, they must be flown within ‘visual line of sight [of the pilot] and well away from people, property and congested areas’.
That said, if you plan to use one privately, with a few friends on public parkland, for example, then you shouldn’t need permission, provided the people are in ‘your control’, according to a CAA spokesman.
However, this appears to be a grey area, as the CAA suggests that using one to shoot a wedding (not commercially), would require CAA approval because this is a larger group and it is unlikely all the guests would be under the pilot’s control.
‘It’s down to people’s common sense,’ adds the CAA spokesman.
Thorny issue of privacy
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) treats photos as data, but ‘domestic’ use of drone-captured images is completely exempt from the Data Protection Act.
Journalism, literature and art are also exempt from the Act, under Section 32 of the 1998 legislation.
The ICO – the UK’s privacy watchdog – says that, unless exempt, drone users must comply with the Act if the images are for business use and the people pictured are identifiable.
However, where a photography business becomes ‘art’ – and therefore exempt from the Act – is unclear.
Asked at which point photography becomes ‘art’, an ICO spokesman told AP: ‘We can’t comment on hypothetical situations.
‘It is ultimately down to the owner of the organisation to comply with the law and determine if [the photos] have artistic merit.’
The regulator says it deals with each on a case-by-case basis and can be contacted for advice (see contact details below).
The distinction is important because data protection rules also give people in such images a right to ask for their photos to be deleted if they have not given consent beforehand.
And drone operators must alert potential subjects that they plan to use the device for such purposes in a given area, according to ICO.
The ICO says such ‘privacy notices’ could take the form of letters posted to people’s homes (accompanied by the address of a website where the photos will be published), or messages on social media.
The ‘journalism’ exemption means that images garnered for a BBC Six O’Clock News report, for example, are not covered by the Act.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has published a draft guide for the media, covering data protection and journalism HERE.
Specifically, drone use is covered by the CCTV Code of Practice. Though this is currently being updated by the ICO – in a bid to clarify the workings of the Data Protection Act – the revamped code will not herald any new laws when published this autumn.
Prepare for take-off
No specific permission is required from a landowner to operate a drone over private land (subject to the safety distance rules), but as a CAA spokesman points out: ‘As you would expect, if an unmanned aircraft is operating from private land (ie, taking off and landing), then the permission of the land owner would be required.’
As the CAA warns at the outset: ‘Unmanned aircraft, irrespective of their size, are still classified as aircraft – they are not toys.’
The CAA will not allow unmanned aircraft to ‘present or create a greater hazard to anyone (or anything) than the equivalent operations of manned aviation’.
Drones may not be toys but they are flying off the shelves, it seems.
And provided they are flown responsibly – and not close to people and airports, for example – users should not encounter any public backlash, says DJI’s Michael Perry.
However, he admits that, as with other emerging technologies – like Google Glass – ‘there’s a period where user etiquette is not clear’.
A row about drone use on a US beach in June, over perceived invasion of privacy, may be a case in point. It led to a woman’s arrest.
Part of the ‘social acceptance’ is about educating the public about the technology, asserts Perry.
Either way, the UK, France and Germany are leading the way in drone take-up across Europe, with the US being DJI’s largest market, and growing demand from the Middle East. Recent clients include the Peruvian government, which plans to use a Phantom drone to help create a 3D map of ancient ruins.
Spies in the sky?
As far as DJI is concerned, military and security applications are ‘not within the vision of our founder’.
‘He wanted to basically design this specifically for photographers, videographers and other creators and innovators.
‘We feel that the market for people who want spy drones and the like is already pretty saturated and it’s not the thing we feel we want to engage in.’
Weddings do fit the bill, though, with videographers adding them to their tool box for the big day.
‘It’s a really novel way to get a shot of the entire wedding ceremony,’ explains Perry.
Enthusiasts make up roughly half of DJI’s market.
‘There are people who just happen to fly Phantoms already and… ask one of their buddies to fly it at their wedding.’
Other users include farmers and firefighters and a ‘huge community of people that just want cool shots of their neighbourhood, or when they go on vacation they want to see the beach from an angle they didn’t think possible’.
And the evolving technology is allowing users to focus more on their photography, rather than on navigating the drone.
The latest tech involves a recently launched ground station capability for a DJI Phantom drone, previously only available for higher-end systems.
‘It allows you to set GPS waypoints on your phone. You then hit go and the system will navigate the course by itself.
‘This is something a lot of photographers are excited about,’ adds Perry.
DJI’s clients include a photographer who plans to use the ground station to help when using a drone to fly around buildings and take pictures at specific intervals.
He then stitches the images together to create 3D models of the architecture.
‘This [technology] allows photographers to focus more on capturing the right image – rather than the flight.’
Civil Aviation Authority www.caa.co.uk – Tel: 0207 379 7311.
Flight Operations Inspectorate – Tel: 01293 573 525
Information Commissioner’s Office www.ico.org.uk – Tel: 0303 123 1113