Everyone knows the law, you can’t fly a camera-equipped drone over or within 150m of any congested area, unless you have permission from the CAA. The Drone Code refers to the same thing as a “built-up area”.
The CAA has previously suggested that in deciding what is “congested” or “built-up”, pilots should “use their common sense and make a safe judgement”.
I was wondering whether there might actually be some publicly accessible mapping of built-up areas available, not to eliminate common-sense or individual judgement, but just to give some initial guidance. And it turns out, there is.
The Office for National Statistics makes available a data-set defining built-up areas for England and Wales (sorry Scotland and Northern Ireland, if maps exist, I’ve not found them yet). This was produced in connection with the 2011 census - it was not intended as a guide for drone safety, but maybe it offers a quick guide as to where it is legal to fly. Before common-sense comes into play.
You can view an interactive version of the mapping via arcgis.com. To use it, you will need to zoom in until the yellow triangle warning at the bottom left disappears, the one shown below. The triangle indicates there is too much data for the map too display, in this example it’s not correctly showing Manchester as an urban area.
Zooming in fixes that, like so:
You can change the base map from the menu at the top-left, to show satellite, hybrid imagery etc. In the tree view on the left of the screen, there are various tools to change the transparency or colour of the map overlay.
The mapping detail is quite blocky when you zoom in. For looking closely at a site, I don’t think it’s any more helpful than just using Google Maps, although there is a similar distance measurement tool:
There are plenty of locations where the mapping isn’t “fit-for-purpose” for identifying safe/unsafe areas, e.g. this location where there are clearly “urban/congested” areas that the mapping misses:
Here’s an example area which I don’t think is urban but which the mapping claims it is:
So is it useful for anything at all? Probably only for working out which way to head for the hills. Here’s part of my local “range”, it’s easy to identify large rural areas and then zoom in to see if there’s anything worth visiting, it also identifies a few more local areas I wouldn’t have thought about.
Some areas are clearly much less congested than others. Here’s a large swathe of the north-west near me:
And at the same scale, here is towards the east coast:
So, when we eventually start worrying about the EASA regulations, and the 150m distance from urban areas that will be required for legacy drones, it looks like there is no shortage of space to fly in, once you get out of the towns. Whether any of it is worth flying over is a different matter …