Guidance: Use of drones
Editorial Guidelines issues
This guidance note discusses the considerations around the use of drones for filming. There is varied terminology relating to drones. The term Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) has been adopted by the United States Federal Aviation Administration and the International Civil Aviation Organisation. This term refers to the unmanned aircraft and all the equipment that is necessary to operate it, such as the control station and communications or navigation equipment. Other bodies, such as the International Air Transport Association and the European Commission, use the term Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) refers to drones, under 20kg, as Small Unmanned Aircraft and if fitted with cameras, as Small Unmanned Surveillance Aircraft (SUSA). In the absence of standard terminology, this note will refer to these aircraft as ‘drones’.
This guidance note should be considered in conjunction with:
- the UK Civil Aviation Authority Regulations for the Commercial Use of Small Drones,
- other relevant CAA Guidance Notes and
- the BBC Safety guidelines for drones.
The note also relates to the following Editorial Guidelines
See Editorial Guidelines Section 7 Privacy (in particular 7.3.25)
- Fairness to Contributors and Consent
See Editorial Guidelines Section 6 Fairness to Contributors and Consent
See Editorial Guidelines Section 5 Harm and Offence
- Data Protection
See Editorial Guidelines Section 18 The Law 18.4.8
- The use of drones is regulated in the UK by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Pilots and operators responsible for drones weighing between 250g and 20kg must be registered with the CAA and CAA rules require that any drones used by the media for filming must be operated by a certified drone pilot, who has CAA authorisation to fly, known as Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) and valid insurance. The operation of drones which weigh more than 20 kg is subject to even more onerous CAA requirements.
- Drone operators should normally comply with the laws and regulations that apply to the airspace where the drone is flown, unless there is a strong editorial justification for not doing so. In a war zone it may not be possible to seek permission to fly. In the absence of country-specific drone regulations, operators should aim to follow the UK CAA standards.
- Failure to adhere to the aviation regulations could lead to a criminal prosecution.
- The Editorial Guidelines state, “Any proposal to gather material using a drone must be referred to a senior editorial figure or, for independent production companies, to the commissioning editor.”
- Drones can be ‘highly privacy intrusive’ and a privacy impact assessment may be necessary to comply with the Information Commissioner’s Office guidance and data protection legislation.
- Drones should not normally be used to identify individuals without their consent, or capture close-up images of private areas such as houses, gardens or offices without the consent of the owner, unless these areas can be seen from a public vantage point or there is a public interest in showing them.
- When assessing whether to use user generated content filmed from a drone we should consider whether the drone flight breached any of the CAA standard restrictions on drone flights and whether or not the person in charge of the drone should have held a Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) certificate from the CAA.
- Where the BBC is offered user generated content and it appears the drone flight put the safety of people or property at risk or has otherwise been carried out illegally, including a breach of aviation regulations, any use of the footage gathered must be justified in the public interest.
- The BBC should not normally ask a contributor, or third party, who does not have a required PfCO from the CAA and liability insurance, to conduct a flight or gather footage from one on our behalf.
- The person in charge of the drone is legally responsible for the safety of the each flight and must take all possible measures to mitigate the risks of a collision.
Guidance in full
- Mandatory Referrals
- Data Protection
- Investigative Use and Secret Recording
- UGC and Third Party Content
(Mandatory Referrals are part of the BBC’s editorial management system. They are an essential part of the process to ensure compliance and must be observed.)
- The Editorial Guidelines state, “Any proposal to gather material using a drone must be referred to a senior editorial figure or, for independents, the commissioning editor.” Any proposal to use a drone should be conducted in accordance with the Editorial Guidelines. (See Editorial Guidelines Section 7 Privacy 7.3.25)
- Any proposal to purchase a drone or operate a hired one yourself must be referred to BBC Safety.
- Any proposal to broadcast footage where the drone operation has put the safety of people or property at risk or has been carried out illegally, including in breach of aviation regulations, must be referred to a senior editorial figure, or for independent production companies, to the commissioning editor who may consult Programme Legal Advice and, if necessary, Director Editorial Policy and Standards.
- Any proposal to pay for such footage (see bullet point above) must be referred to a senior editorial figure or for independent production companies, to the commissioning editor before negotiations on payments are conducted. In the Nations referrals must be made to Heads of News and Current Affairs. Referral must also be made to Editorial Policy. Programme Legal Advice may also be consulted.
In the UK, drones are regulated as ‘aircraft’ by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
CAA regulations require that pilots and operators responsible for drones weighing between 250g and 20kg must be registered with the CAA and any drone weighing up to 20kg used by the media for filming must be operated by a certified drone pilot who has CAA authorisation to fly, known as Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO), and valid insurance. This also applies to third party operators hired by the BBC to fly a drone on our behalf, including freelance camera operators. (A list of preferred BBC suppliers can be found here [BBC staff only].)
CAA regulations also include standard restrictions on drone flights as well as ones which apply when drones are fitted with cameras. These are intended to ensure the safe flight of a drone. In addition, drone operators need to be aware of no-fly zones or temporary bans.
These issues are set out in more detail in the CAA’s Regulations for the Commercial Use of Small Drones.
Legal advice on filming with drones is available from Programme Legal Advice.
Drone operators should normally comply with the relevant aviation rules governing their safe and legal operation, wherever in the world they are flown, unless there is a strong editorial justification for not doing so. In a war zone, it may not be possible to seek permission to fly.
Failure to adhere to a country’s aviation regulations could lead to criminal prosecution.
In the absence of country-specific drone regulations, operators should aim to follow the CAA standards.
The versatility of drones and their ability to operate without the constraint of walls or fences means they can easily access private spaces. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has warned broadcasters that their use of drones “can be highly privacy intrusive” because of the potential to capture images of individuals “unnecessarily”. The ICO suggests that while individuals may not be identifiable from a wide aerial shot, they might still be identifiable from the context in which they are filmed. Individuals may also be unlikely to realise that they are being recorded, even if they are aware of the presence of the drone itself.
Whether privacy will be infringed depends on where the drone will be flown and the images it captures.
Flying a drone in a public space like a park, is unlikely to lead to a breach of privacy where individuals in wide general views are not identified or featured, and are not doing anything inherently private.
However, filming someone’s home or flying over their back garden, particularly if it can’t be seen from a public vantage point, and filming it, may be akin to filming through their window.
Consideration needs to be given to whether a property owner or landowner has a reasonable expectation of privacy in their commercial land or buildings. People’s expectations of privacy in, for example, schools, prisons, care homes, hospitals are also higher.
Some behaviour, such as receiving medical treatment, also attracts a higher expectation of privacy.
Any breach of privacy needs to be justified in the public interest.
Where privacy is inadvertently infringed, steps should be taken to disguise identities.
Before planning a drone operation, users should consider the following:
- Is it necessary and proportionate for the recording to be continuous?
- Can the camera on the drone be switched on and off or re-directed so that privacy is not unnecessarily infringed if the aircraft captures images of people, property or land that is of no interest to the production?
- Are there ways of restricting the view or changing the angle of the lens to avoid capturing images where privacy may be unwarrantably breached, if for example the drone has to fly over someone’s back-garden?
- Should a different take-off position or route be considered?
- Does the production need to provide information to make people aware drones are in use by the BBC or the purpose of filming? This might include the following:
- - Staff wearing highly visible clothing identifying themselves as BBC drone operators.
- - Signage in the area where the drone is being flown.
- - Information on posters or tickets at a live event or outside broadcast or similar.
- - Using social media to explain that filming is taking place from a drone in a defined area.
There is no need to warn people that they might be filmed if individuals are not going to be identifiable from the footage because the shot is too wide.
- Whether an area needs to be cordoned off to prevent anyone entering.
There could be data protection issues arising from using drones for filming. The Information Commissioner’s Office has issued guidance on this in its Data Protection Code for Surveillance Cameras and Personal Information. Where someone’s privacy might be infringed without a strong public interest justification, or the use of drones is unexpected you may need to consider conducting a privacy impact assessment and you should refer to Information Rights on Gateway [BBC staff only] for more advice.
Permission to Fly
Consent to film individuals is separate to the legal requirements to get permission to fly from the aviation authority, which are set out in more detail in the CAA’s Permissions and Exemptions for Commercial Work Involving Small Drones.
Other bodies, such as the emergency services, highways agencies or local authorities may also impose further restrictions.
A drone operator should normally have the land owner’s permission for take-off and landing of the drone. If you are flying under a PfCO it is a requirement of the UK CAA that you obtain this permission from the landowner.
There are several classes of airspace in the UK in which you cannot fly a drone unless you have additional permission from the CAA. There are also areas of regulated airspace around sensitive and hazardous locations such as airports, prisons and nuclear power plants. These are set out in more detail in the CAA’s Regulations Relating to the Commercial Use of Small Drones.
(See: UK CAA’s: Regulations Relating to the Commercial Use of Small Drones: Article 94A and 94B)
Flying over private property, irrespective of whether the drone is filming or not, may also raise legal issues including trespass and nuisance. Property owners have rights in respect of their airspace above their property and you may need to seek permission from the owner.
Further advice is available from Editorial Policy and Programme Legal Advice.
The need for consent will depend on what is being filmed.
Where we are filming in public or semi-public places, such as railway stations, we do not normally obtain consent from individuals who are incidentally caught on camera as part of a general view, unless they are engaged in an activity where they have a legitimate expectation of privacy.
We normally obtain consent before filming on private property.
Programmes which rely on access to an organisation’s land or property should include consent to overfly that land or buildings in any agreement.
Drones should not normally be used to capture close-up images of individuals without consent, or private areas such as houses, gardens or offices without the consent of the owner, unless they can be seen from a public vantage point, or there is a public interest in showing them. If consent is not obtained, any proposal to use a drone for such footage should be regarded as a proposal for secret filming (see Investigative Use and Secret Recording below).
Investigative Use and Secret Recording
Drones may be used for investigations where there is an evidential purpose in the footage to be obtained and providing there is a strong public interest justification for any intrusion of privacy. For example, drones could be used to document illegal activities such as fly tipping, smuggling or illegal agricultural conditions where evidence could not be acquired without the use of an aerial vehicle. According to the Editorial Guidelines, any proposal to film with a drone that risks infringing privacy should be regarded as a proposal for secret filming which must be approved in advance, through the usual process. The forms for secret recording for News and Current Affairs and Factual Programmes and Comedy and Entertainment Output can be found here.
Any proposal to use a drone for surveillance, or to follow the subject of an investigation or hover outside a window where a meeting is taking place, should only be approved if there is any evidential purpose which is in the public interest to reveal.
UGC and Third Party Content
Increasingly we are being offered footage filmed by hobbyists using drones as well as agencies flying similar aircraft on a commercial basis. Drones are also being used across many industries for purposes from land surveying to building inspection or crop analysis, to conservation and wildlife tracking. Protest organisations, like animal rights groups, are also beginning to use drones to gather evidence of illegal behaviour, such as hunting or poaching or of activities normally out of sight at abattoirs or factory farms.
We should take reasonable steps where necessary to verify such footage.
We should also consider its provenance including whether the drone operation:
- put the safety of any person or property at risk,
- involved any intrusion into privacy or secret recording,
- involved any trespass,
- involved any infringement of other property rights like nuisance, or
- contravened aviation regulations.
In terms of aviation regulations, we should consider whether the drone flight breached any of the standard restrictions on drone flights. We should also consider whether or not the person in charge of the drone should have held a Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO). PfCO is required for any drone flight undertaken with a view to receiving payment or some other ‘valuable consideration ’ for the flight or footage (whether from the BBC or a third party). This covers not only commercial drone operators but also hobbyists who operate drones with a view to selling the footage to the media or obtaining some other valuable benefit including, for example, further commissions or a credit. A person in charge of a drone, who flies it without a PfCO when a PfCO is required, is liable to criminal prosecution by the CAA.
(See The CAA’s Guidance on Hiring a Drone Operator for Film or Photography)
If user generated or third party content has been gathered by recklessly or wilfully endangering people or property, or by breaking the law, the BBC may decide not to broadcast it. Examples of this may include where a hobbyist has flown a drone in a no-fly zone, over large public gatherings or has prevented fire fighters from flying helicopters to deal with forest fires.
Where it appears to us that a drone operation has put the safety of people or property at risk or has otherwise been carried out illegally, including in breach of aviation regulations, any use of the footage gathered must be justified in the public interest. Any proposal to broadcast such footage must be referred to a senior editorial figure, or for independent production companies, to the commissioning editor who may consult Programme Legal Advice and, if necessary, Director Editorial Policy and Standards.
Use of user-generated drone footage which intrudes into an individual’s private life without consent must be justified in the public interest.
The Editorial Guidelines require that Editorial Policy is consulted over any proposal to use secret recordings made by third parties prior to approval by a senior editorial figure or for independent production companies, by the commissioning editor. This may include user-generated drone footage which amounts to secret recording.
Any proposal to use secret recordings made by third parties, including user-generated drone footage, must be conducted in accordance with the Editorial Guidelines.
If we propose to use user-generated drone footage and it appears that the person in charge of the drone is at risk of investigation or prosecution in relation to their footage, they should be made aware of this risk and be prepared to accept it.
We should ensure that user generated drone footage is clearly identified as such or attributed to an appropriate third party.
The BBC should not normally ask a contributor, or third party, who does not have a PfCO from the CAA and liability insurance, to conduct a flight or gather footage from one on our behalf.
We only pay in exceptional circumstances for material supplied by members of the public. Where material is particularly editorially important or unique and depicts something of great significance, we may consider making an appropriate payment. Any proposal to pay for footage where the drone operation has put the safety of people or property at risk or has otherwise been carried out illegally, including a breach of aviation regulations must be referred to a senior editorial figure, or for independents to the commissioning editor before negotiations on payments are conducted. In the Nations referrals must be made to Heads of News and Current Affairs. Referral must also be made to Editorial Policy. Programme Legal Advice may also be consulted.
The drone operator is legally responsible for the safety of each flight. You should not fly your aircraft in a way that could endanger people or property. The potential hazards increase with the height, altitude and speed of the aircraft. But even very small drones could be dangerous when flown in close proximity to people or property or other aircraft. You must take all possible measures to mitigate the risks of a collision.
Where a drone is used by a BBC operator it should be flown in accordance with the CAA approved operations manual.
It is a requirement of BBC Safety that you consult a safety adviser for any proposal to purchase a drone or operate a hired aircraft yourself.
Further information about BBC Safety Guidelines for drones can be found here.
 For more information on what a ‘valuable consideration’ is, see the CAA’s Guidance on how ‘commercial operations’ are defined
Last updated December 2019