• The information below explains how 'commercial operations' are defined, how to get assessed for a CAA permission and your responsibilities as a commercial operator.

  • The term Commercial Operations allows a broad variety of flight applications, which are mostly based around aerial photography or the operation of sensors and other data-gathering devices.  

    Commercial operation is given the following meaning within article the Air Navigation Order:

    “…any operation of an aircraft other than for public transport  

    (a) which is available to the public;

    or 

    (b) which, when not made available to the public, is performed under a contract between an operator and a customer, where the latter has no control over the operator,  

    in return for remuneration or other valuable consideration.” 

    The key elements in understanding this term are '…any operation of an aircraft…in return for remuneration or other valuable consideration'.  

    The term 'available to the public' should be interpreted as being a service or commodity that any member of the public can make use of, or actively choose to use, (e.g. because it has been advertised or offered to someone). 

    The essential question that needs to be asked is “what is the purpose of the (specific) flight?”   i.e."If I were not receiving payment/valuable consideration, would I still be looking to fly?"

    Example 1:  A drone operator holding a CAA permission for Commercial Operations is contracted by a site owner to film or survey a building development site or infrastructure facility

    This is clearly within the remit of the permission and the operation can proceed within the limitations and conditions stated on the operator's permission. 

    Example 2:  An estate agent or builder's firm wants to use a drone for aerial imagery/survey as part of their service  

    This also would be considered Commercial Operations even if it only comprised a small part of the service to the customer, e.g. advertising a customer's house or checking the property for the extent of works required.  The operator of the drone would need to have a CAA permission for Commercial Operations.  The estate agent or builder's firm should gain a permission or use the services of an existing permission holder. 


    While every case should be judged on its own merits, some types of arrangements are not generally considered by the CAA to be Commercial Operations such as:

    • Advertising revenue received as a result of persons visiting a website or social media page where video or photographic stills shot from a drone are displayed/posted.  This is because these types of web-pages may be legitimately used to post recreational video material that was not commissioned by another party, but was conceived and wholly funded by the poster. 

    Note: This would not apply if the photographic material had been directly commissioned by another party for the purposes of display or marketing on their website.  

    • Generation of self-marketing material to display an object, event or other activity.  An individual or business would not usually be considered to be doing Commercial Operations if the flight is provided only for their own use. Example:  A charity, educational establishment, local authority or business acquires a drone which is used (and flown by its own staff) to provide aerial imagery for incorporation into  own promotional material.  

       

    • Any other imagery or data collection task where the video, photographic stills or other data collected, are used exclusively for the drone operator's own use.

       

      Example:  A university research team wants to use a drone to gather survey data or imagery to help with their research project.  

      This is legitimate as long as the research project was not directly funded by a business that intends to use the results of the data for its own business purposes (including any material or research into its products or services). Clearly university research is funded through a variety of means (grants, charitable and alumni donations, etc) and for varying purposes.  The exact arrangements would need to be considered in each case.

      Where an academic organisation is openly advertising their capabilities to external organisations and a business relationship is entered into with an external organisation, the use of a drone for that purpose is likely to be construed as Commercial Operations.  In order to alleviate difficulties with varied funding models, universities and other similar organisations should consider applying for permission from the CAA so that their services can be offered without constraint.

    The first thing to note is that in most cases this will not be possible without having at least a standard permission from the CAA which will allow some types of flights within congested areas.  

    On its own, the standard permission does not give the right to fly unhindered and you will still require permission from the owner, manager or authority for the land from which the drone will be taking off and landing.  The conditions of the permission will also require that you 'have control' over the area you intend to use the camera-drone, and this includes any people or vehicles in the area over which you intend to fly the aircraft.  The minimum distances are stated on the permission.

    Before filming you need to ensure that you have:

    • Permission from the Civil Aviation Authority
    • Permission from the owner, manager or authority for the land from which the SUA will be taking off and landing 
    • Control over the area you intend to use the SUA, including any persons, vessels or vehicles in the area over which you intend to operate the aircraft.

    The CAA permission for camera-drone flights only addresses the flight safety aspects of the flight and does not constitute permission to disregard the legitimate interests of other statutory bodies such as the Police and Emergency Services, the Highway Agency, local authorities (and their agents) or any other statutory body.

    In order to exercise the necessary 'control' over a nearby public environment, it will often be necessary to contact the local authority to make suitable arrangements such as road-closures or other restrictions of access.  This is a normal part of ground-based filming in urban areas and the same procedures should be followed in the case of camera-drones.  Due to the lead times advisable for making such arrangements, Location Managers and production staff should start this process as early as possible.

    The following guidance is available from the British Film Commission (BFC): 

    Guidance for filming in the UK:

    Detailed guidance on drone flying in London and other towns and cities can be found in CAP722.

    Due to the large number of possible circumstances, the CAA can only give general guidelines, however a person or people under the control of the person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft can generally be considered to be:

    • Anyone present solely for the purpose of participating in the flight operation. 

    • Anyone under the control of the event or site manager who can reasonably be expected to follow directions and safety precautions to avoid unplanned interactions with the aircraft. Such people could include building-site or other industrial workers, film and TV production staff and any other pre-briefed, nominated individuals with an essential task to perform in relation to the event. 

    Spectators or other people gathered for sports or other mass public events that have not been specifically established for the purpose of the drone operation are generally not regarded as being 'under the control of the drone operator'. 

    In principle, someone who is under the control of the drone operator at a mass public event must be able to:

    • Decide to participate or not to participate 
    • Broadly understand the risks involved
    • Have reasonable safeguards established for them by the site manager and aircraft operator during the period of drone flight operations
    • Not be restricted from taking part in the event or activity if they decide not to participate with the drone operation.

    To use an example: if filming with a drone at a large music festival or public event, it would not be sufficient for the audience/those present to be informed of a drone filming via a public address system, or in advance by e-mail or text. Those types of communication channels do not satisfy the points above.

    Permission has occasionally been granted for drone flights at public events by special arrangement. These permissions have been extremely limited and usually involve a segregated take-off site with the drone operating only vertically within strict lateral limits. There is no allowance for direct over-flight of persons in these circumstances.

    Additional guidance regarding filming in towns and cities is available on this page.

    National Qualified Entities (NQEs) are established to assess the competence of people operating small unmanned aircraft as part of the CAA's process in granting operating permissions.  

    Assessment by an NQE is necessary for those with no previous aviation training or qualifications. To achieve this, NQEs may offer a short educational course/programme prior to the competency assessment aimed at bringing an individual's knowledge up to the required level (but please note that these are not CAA approved training courses).  

    A typical NQE full-course involves:

    • pre-entry/online study
    • 1-3 days of classroom lessons and exercises 
    • a written theory test 
    • a flight assessment 

    After successfully completing the theory element, applicants will:

    • develop his/her own operations manual 
    • practice aircraft operation/flying skills for the practical flight assessment. 

    Flight assessments are normally arranged and completed at your own pace:

    • they are usually arranged separately but may be available on the last day of the course
    • they have no structured syllabus or sequence of numbered exercises, but the test will be based on testing the procedures that have been described within the applicant's operations manual 

    Details of CAA approved assessment organisations (NQEs) are shown below.

    Restricted NQE (Flight Assessment Only)

    • AJS Support Ltd
    • ATEC-3D
    • CEFAS
    • Cyberhawk
    • Greater Manchester Fire Rescue Service (Manchester Fire) (Emergency Services Only)
      Sentinel Aviation

    Full NQE

    • 3iC Ltd
    • Aerial Motion Pictures Ltd
    • Cambridge UAV
    • Drone Pilot Academy
    • Flyby Technology
    • Heliguy
    • Lancashire Fire Rescue Service (Emergency Services Only)
    • Martek Drones Trading As Coptrz
    • NATS RPAS
    • Resource Group
    • RTP Rheinmetall - RUSTA
    • SalusUAV Ltd
    • Sky-Futures
    • StratAero PLC
    • The Aerial Academy
    • The Great Circle
    • The UAV Academy Ltd
    • UAV Air (Consortiq)
    • UAV8 Ltd
    • Uplift Drone Training
    • Whispercam