Europe's new drones regime

The EU has overhauled its rules on drone use. The new laws will mean that there is a common framework for drone flights. Having the same system across the EU, lawmakers hope, will provide a high level of safety, privacy and environmental protection while giving operators a clear structure within which to operate. The aim is also to encourage industry growth by effectively offering a larger market within which drone businesses can operate.

The rules will replace national systems from 1 July 2020. They are made up of two linked regulations:

Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947 on the procedures and rules for the operation of unmanned aircraft.

Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/945 on unmanned aircraft and on third country operators of unmanned aircraft systems.

The regulations are built around three concepts:

  • the type of operation being conducted
  • the risk that the operation presents
  • performance levels.

What rules will apply to drone flights?

Authorisation requirements will depend on the level of risk presented by different categories of operation. Operations classified as low or no risk will fall within the “open” category, and will not be subject to authorisation requirements beyond basic requirements. Higher risk “specific category” operations will require a safety risk assessment and an operational authorisation. Operations with features that take them outside these categories will be classed as “certified category” and will be subject to the regulatory regime applicable to manned aircraft.

To fall within the lighter touch open category, operations must comply with the following features:

  • a maximum take-off mass of less than 25kg
  • operation within visual line of sight, or VLOS
  • flights should not exceed 120m from the ground.

Open category operations can fall within one of three subclasses representing different levels of risk. The lowest risk activity involves very small drones of under 250g. These face few restrictions. Drones of up to 4kg can be used in subcategory A2, permitting flight near groups of people. Remote pilots will have to have completed a competency examination. Subcategory A3 operations are permitted in more remote locations.

The drones that can be used in open category operations will have to meet product standards and have a CE marking. Drones presenting increased levels of risk due to their size, speed and other features will be classified as C1-C4. There are transitional measures to enable the industry to adapt. Full application of the classification requirements will not come in until 1 July 2022.

Will I have to register?

  • registration of drone operators will be required for most activity falling within the open and specific categories
  • registration of the unmanned aircraft itself will be required for certified category operations.
  • the very lowest risk activity will not require registration, but it will be important to note the rules on this – no cameras or listening devices or high speed drones.

Making sense of the rules

There is a lot of detail in the rules, but drawing out some high-level points:

  • only outdoor activity is covered.
  • minimum remote pilot age varies with the kind of activity undertaken. Much of the detail will be left to member states.
  • remote pilots will need register in their home member state and include their registration number on devices they use.

The EU's Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, plans to publish guidance in October to help manufacturers and remote pilots understand the new system.

What about Brexit?

As things stand, it is uncertain what the status of the UK will be in July 2020. The UK regulator (the CAA) is currently working towards implementation of the rules as if the UK were to remain a member state. It intends to adopt revised documentation and guidance in the coming months.

Note that if the UK is to follow the new rules, the Air Navigation Order will need to be updated to bring it into line.

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