After several years of consultation, the EU commission is now eager to adopt detailed rules on unmanned aircrafts by the end of February 2019. This makes it likely that legislation will come into force as early as June 2019. As the first comprehensive EU-wide regulation on UAS operation, this will have wide-ranging impact for hobbyists and professionals alike. Here’s what you need to know now to prepare yourself (even if living in the UK*).
First of all, it is important to note that the new regulation is coming in two separate pieces: the (draft)_implementing_regulation is the main document, which is in turn referenced by the (draft)_delegated_regulation, which specifically targets the design of UAS hardware that may be used within the ‘Open’ category (more below). It also attempts to standardise a number of aspects relevant to third-country operation.
Both documents have already passed the public consultation phase, meaning that experts and lobbyists from diverse interest groups have been able to give extensive feedback. The next step is the EU Commission’s approval, expected for February 28th, 2019. Let’s see what’s in store.
Zoning is a key principle of EU UAS regulations and played an important part in securing the required cross-national support due to their granting of considerable regulatory freedom to individual member states.
Each member state are free to determine an arbitrary number of geographical flight zones. Each of these zones may come with a number of operational restrictions that can be applied for various reasons. For example, UAS operations may be restricted in environmental zones. Safety and/or security considerations might also prohibit UAS operation entirely, e.g. above crowded city centres, gliding fields, international airports, embassies and other government sites, and zones of military interest such as border zones and test sites.
In accordance with EU guidelines, member states will have to ensure that zoning maps are freely downloadable in digital format and kept up-to-date.
EU cross-border operations are automatically permitted as long as zones on both sides are unrestricted. Otherwise, authorisation has to be sought with the respective National Aviation Authorities (NAAs).
The ‘Open’ category
All UAS activity will be classified into three operational categories. If you are a hobbyist, then you will most likely fall into the least restricted, or ‘open’, category. This category is mostly categorised by drone weight, as well as whether operation is above, close to or far away from people. Independently of weight, all drones in the ‘open’ category may not more than 120m above ground and can only be operated in unrestricted flight zones (see below).
Understandably, the EU commission has put effort into preventing toy drones from being overregulated. Hence, drones < 250g do not have to be registered, can be operated by anyone and may even fly above crowds. The same applies to all drones < 900g, as long as the operator is age 16 or above and has completed a brief online drone course.
Any drone > 900g will have to be registered.
For drones >= 900g but < 4kg, operation is not permitted within ca. 30m of people (see Draft Delegated Annex). Note that this may effectively prevent the use of drones >900g in urban areas. Even in non-urban areas, operators are required to pass both an online course and a theoretical exam at a certified test centre.
Still heavier drones < 25kg may only fly at least ca. 150m from people, effectively preventing use of drones >4kg within urban areas. Operation will require taking an online training course.
CE markings are obligatory for all drone hardware within the ‘Open’ category, and these will place different technical capability requirements for drones operating within different subcategories.
Note that even though EU directives only require insurance for drones > 20kg, national laws usually demand taking insurance for all ‘Open’ drone operations.
The ‘Specified’ category
Operation under increased risk falls within the ‘specified’ category. This requires obtaining authorisation by your National Aviation Authority (NAA) based on a Specific Operation Risk Assessment (SORA) ****.
To simplify the task of creating a SORA, prefabricated risk assessments covering a range of standard operational scenarios will be made available. If your drone operations fall within such a standard scenario, creating a SORA might be as easy as filling in a simple form**.
If your operations do not fall under a standard scenario, a full SORA needs to be carried out. This first requires identification of two specific metrics summarising both Ground Risk Class and Air Risk Class respectively.
These risk-related numbers can be improved on through the use of strategic mitigation measures. For example, flying at night might circumvent traffic-related zone restrictions.
The resulting final residual Ground Risk Class and residual Air Risk Class are then combined into a single Specific Assurance and Integrity Level (SAIL) number using a simple lookup-table.
Note: If the resulting SAIL is larger than 7, it is understood that the amount of risk indicated cannot be effectively handled by ‘Specified’ operation and approval within the ‘Certified’ category has to be sought.
Otherwise, Operational Safety Objectives (OSOs) apply progressively depending on the SAIL number. These are specific requirements related technical features (such as communication abilities), fail safe features, human error and adverse weather conditions. If the relevant OSOs are met, authorisation is normally granted***.
Operators that regularly conduct operations within the ‘Specified’ category can attain a Light UAS Operator Certificate (LUC). A LUC grants certain privileges that simplify the process of gaining authorisation for ‘Specified’ operations that do not fall within standard scenarios.
One risk aspect that is difficult to control are accidental changes in either or both ground and air risk – for example, if a drone accidentally enters a restricted zone. In practice, this particular risk is usually managed by the use of (physical) buffer zones. However, feasibility often demand that such buffers are insufficiently large to accommodate for a full range escape. Additional regulation may address this issue in the future.
The ‘Certified’ category
UAS operation falls within the ‘certified’ category if the risk is roughly comparable to or exceeding the risks associated with manned aviation.
UAS operation falls within the ‘Certified’ category if the risk is roughly comparable to or exceeding the risks associated with manned aviation. Unlike the first two operations categories, EU regulation for ‘Certified’ operation is as of yet largely unspecified and will likely be adopted in multiple stages.
In any case, ‘Certified’ operation is expected to require adequate certification of both UAS hardware and control software and, unless operation is entirely autonomous, will require the drone pilot to be adequately licensed.
Currently, authorisation for ‘Certified’ operation needs to be sought in line with National Aviation Authority (NAA) regulation. In addition, the European Union Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) accepts applications in its present remit. Note that certain hardware systems may require independent approval from additional authorities (e.g. Datalink, Detect and Avoid systems etc).
Flying beyond visual line of sight (B-VLOS)
The current EU stance on drone flight beyond visual line of sight, i.e. the drone operator does not stay in visual contact with the drone, is that the neither communications nor control technology necessary for such automation are mature enough yet to be regulated. This is reflected also in SORA methodology, which puts tight constraints on B-VLOS. B-VLOS operations are therefore not going to be enabled by EU regulation in the near future.
Transitional arrangements and schedule
The EU Commission is expected to approve the two EU UAS guideline drafts on February 28th. This could mean that regulation could be adopted as early as June 2019. This would mean that regulation may come into force from June 2020.
However, it is expected that the enforcement of some regulation may be delayed up until June 2021. For example, member states might require ample time in order to decide on matters related to Zoning areas and making sure public access to relevant information is routinely warranted under EU guidelines.
Market regulation is expected to be subject to a three year transition period until June 2022 to allow manufacturers, such as e.g. DJI, to adapt to the new regulatory environment. This means that during the transition period, older drones may still be operated even if they do not conform with new EU UAS regulations.
Comparison with US regulation
From a high-level perspective, current US regulation may be thought of entailing similar operations categories as the upcoming EU UAS regulation drafts. Roughly speaking, the main difference is that US equivalents of both ‘open’ and ‘certified’ categories are increasingly protruding into the ‘specified’ sector equivalent.
As for B-VLOS, the US currently offers standardised training and testing procedures to achieve the status of Remote Pilot in Command. With this certification, which currently has no EU equivalent, interested parties may conduct limited B-VLOS operations. Recent B-VLOS permissions granted by the US Department of Transportation to a select number of commercial enterprises, however, indicate a trend of progressive relaxation of B-VLOS requirements for business purposes, such as delivery or surveillance.
In the future, it is conceivable that future regulation on both sides of the Atlantic related to B-VLOS might ultimately draw from experience gathered during past military operations. For illustration, in Iraq in 2008, US military drone operators maintained (largely) safe inter-operation with manned operations by using separate designated runways for UAS under B-VLOS and personally conducting routine ATC radio communications.
Many important aspects of UAS operation are understood to fall outside the scope of EU UAS guidelines. These include:
- insurance: EU guidelines only require insurance of operations involving UAS > 20kg. However, individual member state legislation is expected to extend insurance requirements to all operations categories.
- privacy: individual member state regulations apply
- protection of personal data: other guidelines apply, such as GDPR
Overall, it seems as if the new set of EU UAS guidelines will achieve the EU Commission’s goal of creating a set of coherent regulations crucial to UAS operations. As they cannot be easily restricted by individual member states, it is to be expected that the new guidelines will have an enabling effect.
However, significant gaps related to the ‘Certified’ category and B-VLOS operation still need to be closed and some minor issues in the remaining two categories still need to be addressed. This is of particular importance in order to keep up with fast-paced advances in US regulation.
*unless the UK undergoes a Hard Brexit, it will very certainly strive to stay part of the single European sky airspace – even if exiting with a deal. Hence EU UAS regulation will most likely apply to UK drone operators despite of Brexit. In case of a Hard Brexit,
** Note that there is currently still disagreement among member states as to whether NAAs are required to individually assess applications or whether authorisation is granted by default. While the former is favoured by the UK, other countries such as Denmark highlight the impracticability of this approach and suggest to rely on occasional routine checks instead.
*** Note that the guidelines do not explicitly require risk assessments to be conducted under SORA. However, no other risk assessment methodology has so far been approved.
**** Official SORA v2.0 documentation had not been publicly released by the time of writing
I (Christian Schroeder de Witt) am Technical and Outreach Officer at Oxford Drone Society. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and any information given below may be wrong or incomplete. Please double-check for yourself (sources provided)! If you spot any errors, please contact me.
This article is heavily informed by an excellent presentation held by Klavs Anderson, Chief Flight Inspector for the Danish Transport, Construction and Housing Authority and contributor to the JARUS guidelines on Specific Operations Risk Assessment (SORA).