Can Private Investigators legally use drones?

Drone with a camera

Can Private Investigators legally use drones?

Private Investigators use myriad innovative tools to gain information. No longer do we just use a telescopic lens on a camera! There is a plethora of spyware, bugs, cameras and listening devices out there, but what about the good old ‘eye in the sky’?

It’s important to know that drones (used for work) are governed by the UK Civil Aviation Authority  (CAA). There are several categories of drones, and we’re not talking about toys here. But rather then getting bogged down on classes and legislation (CAP722 for reference) let’s just cut to the chase……

Yes we can!

But there are some important things that both Investigators and the public need to be aware of, to ensure we are using them lawfully! Everybody who flies a drone (not a toy) needs to register with the CAA for an Operator ID, which should be displayed on the drone itself.

Most Private Investigators are using the DJI Mavic 2 drone and there are some very good reasons for this. It’s small, quiet and has a reasonable 4x zoom. It’s easy to transport – just larger than my hand and has a flight time of 30 minutes per battery. BUT, the biggest reason is that it weighs 249 grammes.

Why is that important I hear you ask.

  • Operators need a Flyer ID for drones 250g and over. This is a multiple choice test on the rules around flying. (I would recommend everybody takes this test however, regardless of their drone)
  • Drones over 250g are not allowed to fly within 50 metres of people.
  • Drones over 250g are not allowed to fly within 150 metres of residential, recreational and commercial areas. (Pretty useless as Investigator!)

*there are exceptions, but this article is intended to be brief and relevant to the audience.

What about my right to privacy?

Videos and images taken with a drone still fall under GDPR. There should be a ‘lawful purpose’ behind the reason for taking the imagery as part of your investigation. Storage, use and distribution of the images are no different than those obtained by a camcorder or any other audio/visual recording device. Recording through someone’s window is still on very unsafe ground. All Private Investigators should be registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

This image was taken from a height of 80 metres and approximately 60 metres from the beacon on x1 zoom:

This image was taken from a height of 80 metres and approximately 60 metres from the beacon on x2 zoom:

This image was taken from a height of 80 metres and approximately 60 metres from the beacon on x4 zoom:

On a quiet day and if you’re listening out for a drone, they can be heard from approximately 80 metres away. However, with background noice and a subject who is preoccupied, the drone can get in much closer without being seen or heard!

Another advantage of using a drone is that you can’t see the camera on them from more than 20 metres away, so there’s no way of knowing if they’re watching you or somebody else!

What else should I know about using drones for Private Investigation?

  • If you use a drone for payment/work then you will need to have insurance: Public liability and indemnity.
  • The pilot should always have sight of the drone.
  • It’s a criminal offence to fly above 120 metres or within 5km of a restricted zone (ie airport)
  • No drones are allowed to fly over crowds of people.

*The rules surrounding drones is in a ‘Legacy Period,’ due to end in December 2022. So it’s important to be aware that some of what has been pointed out here may change.

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