First conviction for illegal use of an unmanned aircraft

Date: 02 April 2014

A man from Cumbria has become the first person in the UK to be successfully prosecuted for the dangerous and illegal flying of an unmanned aircraft. Robert Knowles was found to have flown the device in restricted airspace over a nuclear submarine facility, as well as allowing the device to fly too close to a vehicle bridge. Both offences breached the UK’s Air Navigation Order. Mr Knowles, of Barrow-in-Furness, was found guilty on Tuesday 1 April 2014 and fined £800 at Furness and District Magistrate Court following the prosecution by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), who said the case raised important safety issues concerning recreational flying of unmanned aircraft. The CAA was also awarded costs of £3,500.

On 25 August 2013, the Court heard, an unmanned aircraft (UAV) was recovered from water near to a submarine testing facility in Barrow-in-Furness, operated by the defence company, BAE Systems. Analysis by the police of video footage taken from a camera fitted to the device subsequently revealed that during its flight it had skimmed over the busy Jubilee Bridge over Walney Chanel, well within the legally permitted 50 metres separation distance required. The UAV had also flown through restricted airspace around the nuclear submarine facility before it inadvertently landed in the water.

The UAV was traced to Mr Knowles who admitted to building the device himself and operating it on the day in question. He was charged with:

• Flying a small unmanned surveillance aircraft within 50 metres of a structure (Article 167 of the Air Navigation Order 2009).

• Flying over a nuclear installation (Regulation 3(2) of the Air Navigation (Restriction of Flying)(Nuclear Installations) Regulations 2007).

The CAA said the conviction sent a message to recreational users of UAVs that the devices are subject to aviation safety rules.

The conviction of Robert Knowles follows the recent case of a photographer from Lancashire accepting a caution for using a UAV for commercial gain without permission. The photographer had sold footage of a school fire taken from his quadcopter to media organisations, even though he did not have authority from the CAA to operate the device commercially. Anyone using unmanned aircraft for ‘aerial work’ requires a ‘permission’ from the CAA to ensure safety standards are being adhered to and the operator is fully covered by indemnity insurance.

Anyone using a UAV recreationally can also seek advice from established model aircraft clubs who will have detailed local knowledge of airspace restrictions. Go to www.bmfa.org for more information.

More information on the regulation of UAVs, including a list of operators with permission to fly UAVs for commercial use, is available at www.caa.co.uk/uas

For further press information, contact the CAA Press Office on: 0207 453 6030 press.office@caa.co.uk .

Follow the CAA on Twitter @UK_CAA

Notes to Editors:

Operating rules for UAVs:
• An unmanned aircraft must never be flown beyond the normal unaided ‘line of sight’ of the person operating it. This is generally measured as 500m horizontally or 400ft vertically.
• An unmanned aircraft fitted with a camera must always be flown at least 50m distance away from a person, vehicle, building or structure.
• An unmanned aircraft fitted with a camera must not be flown within 150m of a congested area or large group of people, such as a sporting event or concert.


The CAA is the UK's specialist aviation regulator. Its activities include: making sure that the aviation industry meets the highest technical and operational safety standards; preventing holidaymakers from being stranded abroad or losing money because of tour operator insolvency; planning and regulating all UK airspace; and regulating airports, air traffic services and airlines and providing advice on aviation policy.