UK Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Act 2021: update for drone users and insurers

The Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill was introduced on 31 December 2020 and, having enjoyed swift progress through parliament, received Royal Assent and became an Act of Parliament on 29 April.

The Act address two separate but related issues. The first part concerns modernisation of airspace in the UK, with the aims of delivering quicker, quieter and cleaner journeys, and more capacity. Whilst these changes are largely beyond the scope of this article, it is noted that such modernisation will likely lay the path for a more streamlined process of allowing operation of drones beyond visual line of sight – a subject discussed in our previous article. The second part, which we look at here, is all about enforcement of the rules governing drone flight in the UK.

Enforcement of drone flight rules

This legislation comes at a time when the regulatory framework for drones is in a state of flux, and new rules on enforcement is badly needed. The impetus for these changes is likely to have been driven largely by the major disruption caused in 2018 and 2019 in incidents where UAVs were flown illegally near major UK airports, although the subject has been addressed in public consultations before that.

The Act will provide powers to police the misuse of unmanned aircraft, including to:

  • Order the pilot to ground unmanned aircraft
  • Stop and search people and vehicles
  • Obtain a warrant to search property.

Police will also be given powers to require a person to:

  • Produce documentation or evidence of the permissions or exemptions required under the Air Navigation Order 2016, such as permission to fly in the flight-restricted zone of a protected aerodrome.
  • Produce evidence of remote pilot competency and operator registration.
  • Issue a fixed penalty notice for less serious unmanned aircraft-related offences.

Changes in drone rules

Ahead of the Bill becoming law, and partially in response to changes to the rules governing the use of drones in the UK (and following a large increase in the number of reports of drone misuse), the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and the Home Office have joined forces to form “Operation Foreverwing”. This initiative is aimed at tackling drone crime and raising awareness of the rules.

Rules governing the use of drones in the UK changed significantly on 1 January 2021, when the government introduced new rules via an amendment to the Air Navigation Order 2016 and supporting guidance material published by the CAA. These changes bring the framework in line with the rules in the EU.

New categories of drone operations

Registration and some level of competency/training remain mandatory for all but toy drones with no camera, albeit the level of training required depends upon the nature of the drone and operation. Gone is the distinction between commercial and leisure use.

Operations fall within three categories: open, specific and certified.

The open category is for low-risk drones operating pursuant to a set of standards, and no additional authorisations from the CAA is required if operating within those standards. There are three subcategories of operation (A1, A2 and A3), each with its own set of operational restrictions and requirements for drone size, registration and competency. Somewhat confusingly, drone size in the open category is also categorised by reference to certain standards (which originates from the EU legislation that drove these changes - C0 up C5) but it is not yet possible to buy a drone bearing the C0-C5 classification, so the rules have introduced a transition period running to the end of next year which merely references take-off weight. This has caused immense confusion in the leisure drone industry, with many retailers making no effort to educate the buyer on these new provisions, and many continuing to operate under the old rules.

The specific category is where the majority of more complex commercial operators live, because their operations involve higher risk that do not permit flight in the open category. Specific authorisation is required from the CAA. The process for obtaining the authorisation is closely aligned with the previous system for obtaining permission for commercial operations so, for most commercial operators, nothing has changed.

The certified category is for the very complex operations involving risks akin to manned aviation, such as operating beyond visual line of sight.


The changes will represent a big shift for hobbyists not accustomed to such stringent requirements. Consumers will need to be familiar with the applicable rules or face the risk of criminal sanctions. Removing the distinction between hobby and commercial drones may add a level of certainty for all users and indirectly promote the development of drone-related technologies in the UK.

Implications for insurers

The classifications of unmanned aircraft based on the level of risk they represent will need to be reflected in the drafting of policies, and insurers will want to check that their wordings are still relevant if referring in any details to the level of competency expected of a pilot. These changes may assist the streamlining of wordings across European countries adopting the same standards (i.e. EU and UK).

Interestingly, parliament did not use this opportunity to bring in any specific rules for insurance. Requirements for insurance will continue to be governed by rules initially implemented through EU regulation in relation to all aircraft. In our previous responses to government consultations on drone use, Kennedys have stressed the importance of specific rules around insurance, and the need to consult with the insurance sector. As usage and regulation increase, we will continue to reinforce this message.

Read other items in London Market Brief - May 2021

Related items:

Related content