Pilots today warned drone operators that they could face jail if they fly too close to airports as new laws come into force.

The new legislation sees the no-fly zone around airports increased from 1km to 5km and gives police greater powers.

The introduction of stricter rules follows flights chaos caused by drone sightings at Gatwick in December.

Those who ignore the rules could face hefty fines and prison sentences.

The British Airline Pilots Association welcomed the change as “one step” towards the safe integration of such devices in to UK airspace.

But Balpa says is calling for measures to protect helicopters which operate at low levels away from the protected zone around airports and in areas where drones are frequently flown.

At the same time, the association is continuing to work with the government as it drafts its Drones Bill and is pressing for it to deliver on the promise of a drone registration scheme this year.

Balpa is also urging the government and regulators to encourage airports to invest in drone detection and disabling measures.

The union’s head of flight safety Rob Hunter said: “From today, drone users need to understand that that flying a drone within 5km of an airport or over 400ft is not only putting lives at risk but is also against the law. If you are planning to fly a drone you must do so responsibly. If you don’t you will face significant fines or even time in prison.

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“This new legislation, which Balpa campaigned for, is a step towards the safe integration of drones in to UK airspace. But the puzzle isn’t complete just yet and now is not the time to become complacent.”

The government has acted to bring the law change in ahead of a new Drones Bill which will give police “significantly increased powers” to deal with those using drones illegally.

Penalties for breaking the law on misusing drones range from fines to life imprisonment if the device is intentionally used to cause violence.

Drone users can only fly within the restriction zones if they have the correct permission from air traffic control or the airport.

Aviation minister Liz Sugg is due to meet global manufacturers next week to discuss how to tackle criminal drone use.

They are expected to discuss a range of topics including counter-drone technology and software – such as ‘geofencing’ – that could be built into drones at the point of manufacture.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling said: “All drone users should be aware that flying a drone within 5km of an airport or over 400ft is a serious criminal act, one which could put lives at risk and risks penalties ranging from significant fines to a life sentence.

Sugg added: “Flying drones illegally puts others at risk both in the air and on the ground, so it’s vital they are used safely.

“The majority of people using drones want to do so responsibly, so we have expanded a national campaign to ensure they know the rules – and the penalties.

The new Drones Bill, which is currently being drafted, will give new powers to the police to clamp down on those misusing drones and other small unmanned aircraft – including the power to access electronic data stored on a drone with a warrant.

“It will also include stop and search powers for drone users near aerodromes.”