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  • Writer's pictureSimon Golstein

EASA drone regulation - looking to the future

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

The Old Continent has almost thirty different countries, and many different languages, cultures and laws. Luckily for drone operators, the same drone regulations span the continent (with a few exceptions).


In this article, we’ll look at how drone operations are regulated across Europe, and the status of the U-space in general. EU law is notoriously complex, and drone regulations are no exception - we’ll try to make it as simple as possible.


A brief history


Drones have changed the face of aviation regulation worldwide, and regulators are still scrambling to catch up.


Before easy-to-fly drones became widespread, the only laws that could be applied to drones were those of model aircraft - in Germany, for example, RC-flying was governed by an organization that had no connection to its aviation authority. But these simple rules for a niche hobby quickly became insufficient as self-stabilizing drones with high-quality cameras hit the shelves. Recreational use grew, but more significantly, drones suddenly had commercial uses. Where once person would need to risk injury by climbing, now a drone could be used. Where once a security guard would need to be employed, now drones could do the job, and arguably more effectively. Drones could potentially replace police helicopters, delivery drivers, photographers, mappers, and even taxi drivers. The result was more drones in the sky, and the numbers are growing by the year.


Legislators first took note of drones in 2005, when the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization addressed the topic. Since then, drone regulations have been in a constant state of change, trying to adapt to with a rapidly developing and increasingly popular technology, and one that isn’t so easily defined - a drone can be anything from a toy to a fully-fledged aircraft.


Having said that, the European regulator’s stance is clear. When you open drone classification documentation, you’re greeted with the words: “This drone is an aircraft. Aviation law applies.”


Let’s look at how this stance is applied in the law.


The authorities


The first thing to understand is that when you fly a drone in Europe, you’re automatically under the jurisdiction of two agencies – your national aviation regulator, and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). EASA covers all 27 members of the European Union, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The good thing about EASA is that licensing received in any of these countries will be valid in all of them, although your interactions will be with your national aviation authority. There is another organization to be aware of too - the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, or Eurocontrol. This organization is responsible for coordinating air traffic control across Europe. It’s not an EU agency, but it is closely aligned with EASA and covers all EU member states.

EASA laws governing drone use are called regulations 2019/945 and 2019/947. They were published in 2019, harmonized in January 2021, and are still not complete (for example, drone classifications are in a “transitional” state until December 2023; the information in this article is correct as of May 2023).


Interestingly, unlike the US Federal Aviation Administration, EASA doesn’t care if a drone operation is commercial or recreational - all of the regulations are based on risk.


Drone registration and classification


All drone flights in Europe require registration with EASA. Registration means giving your name, your drone, and taking an online pilot certification. This is done via the local aviation authority. The successful applicant will receive an operator ID and a drone identifier that must be visible on the body of their drone(s). This last requirement will change in January 2024, because that’s when the Remote-ID requirement comes into force (all drones over 250 grams will have to automatically broadcast themselves to the world as they fly).


EASA has so far created five categories for drones.


· C0 means drones up to 250 grams in weight. They can fly to a maximum height of 120 meters and at a maximum speed of 19 m/s.

· C1 means drones up to 900 grams in weight. They can fly to a maximum height of 120 meters and at a maximum speed of 19 m/s and are required to be Remote-ID-capable, as well as having lights that are visible to the pilot and easily distinguishable from those of aircraft. DJI’s Mavic 3 was the first drone to receive C1 certification, in August 2022.

· C2 means drones up to 4 kilograms in weight. They can fly to a maximum height of 120 meters, with no speed cap, and also need lights and Remote-ID. eBee X series drones were the first to receive these.

· C3 means drones up to 25 kilograms in weight and up to 3 meters in size. They can fly to a maximum height of 120 meters, have no speed cap, and need Remote-ID and lights.

· C4 is up to 25 kilograms, with no other obligations specified.


Operation classifications


As mentioned, EASA only cares about risk, that is, the specifications of a given drone and the potential danger of its mission. To this end, it divides drone activities into three categories: open, specific, and certified.


Open


This is for low-risk operations, applicable to drones that weigh less than 25 kg, will not ascend higher than 120 meters, and that aren’t transporting goods. BVLOS flights are not permitted in this category, so the drone must remain in the pilot’s line of sight. When registering to fly in this category, you must choose one of three subcategories:


A1 registration is for drones under 250 grams in weight (C0), or 900 grams (C1). It’s not allowed to fly over groups of people, and follows the ‘C’ specifications of the drones - that is, no flying over 19 m/s or above 120 meters.


A2 registration is for drones under 4 kg in weight (C2). Flights must stay at least 30 meters away from any members of the public in the vicinity, and operators must be at least 16 years of age to receive this authorization. Interestingly, A2 registration is more stringent that A1 and A3 because it involves flying closer to people. Applicants must complete an additional theory exam, and in some cases, complete a set amount of hours flight.


A3 registration is for drones under 25 kg in weight (C3, C4), and must stay at least 150 meters away from any members of the public in the vicinity. You must be at least 16 to receive this authorization.


The regulation allows member countries to lower the minimum age from 16, but in such cases, the pilot will be confined to operations in that country. That same goes for insurance – that’s up to the member country to decide.


Specific


This is the next level up from open - basically, anything that exceeds the open category. Missions in the specific mean drones of over 25kg in weight, BVLOS flights, flights above 120 meters, flights that carry cargo, and flights above populated areas. Because there is more risk, the operator must receive additional training certifications, and authorization from the local aviation authority before each flight.


EASE divides the specific classification into two: ‘standard scenarios’ (applicable from January 2024) and everything else. There are currently only two standard scenarios published. The first is an in-line-of-sight flight that stays below 120 meters in an urban environment. The second is a BVLOS flight of up to one kilometer in distance, but not in an urban environment. EASA is open to expanding standard scenarios - the website invites people to submit proposals for new standard scenarios. This could be useful for streamlining the process. Missions that are not standard scenarios require the operator to complete a risk assessment.


Certified


This is for operations with the most risk, such as very large drones, drones transporting dangerous cargo, and drones transporting people. Flights in this category share rules with crewed aviation - a licensed pilot, a proven data link between the drone and its operating system, safety measures in case of data link failure, and Remote-ID capabilities.


In conclusion – there is a complex interplay of classifications, some of which are not yet finalized. All aviation agencies in Europe recommend that operators consult with them before beginning drone activities so as to avoid penalties.


The U-space - how does the EASA envisage the future?


U-space is a term referring to an airspace with infrastructure capable of supporting drone flights. This is something that drone operators dream of - a regulatory framework that will allow for aerial vehicles of all kinds to operate together, opening the sky to everyone. It’s something that UTM providers like High Lander, and organizations like the Global UTM Association, have been working to create for years.


EASA agrees. Regulation 2021/664, published in April 2021, recognizes that UAS activity, including that with a “high degree of automation and digitalisation”, has become a permanent and growing fixture in the European airspace, and that a dedicated infrastructure is required to manage it. The regulation requires and empowers member states to begin creating this framework, although it doesn’t give a deadline, stating that members “should be given sufficient time to adapt their procedures to the new regulatory framework before this Regulation applies.”


Looking at what the 2021/664 defines as ideal for the coming U-space is very interesting. In no particular order, it says:


· That there should be “minimum requirements” for drone operators and UTM providers “to ensure the safety of operations in that airspace.” In other words, that there needs to be an accepted technological standard, as with traditional aviation.

· That harmony between crewed and uncrewed aviation requires “specific coordination procedures and communication facilities between relevant air traffic service units” - that is, a system in which UTM services work in tandem with traditional air traffic control.

· That there should be a “network identification service” in which drone locations, vectors, and pilot identities, can be stored and shared when necessary.

· That a network identification service should provide the identity of UAS operators, and the location and flight vector of UAS during normal operations and in contingency situations, and share relevant information with other U-space airspace users.

· That there should be a “network identification service” in which drone locations, vectors, and pilot identities, can be stored and shared when necessary.

· That a service should be available that will provide operators with up-to-date information as to no-fly zones and other airspace constraints.

· That drones should be “free of intersection in space and time” with other drones - that is, collision avoidance.

· That a “traffic information service” should alert drones to the proximity of other aerial vehicles.

· That a “weather information service” should be available for flight planning and execution.


Although EASA has taken some steps to hurry the U-space requirements along, such as with the Remote-ID requirement that will come into force in January of 2024, it’s generally expected that there won’t be a true Europe-wide U-space until 2030, which is a long way away. But the drone market in Europe exceeded 6.2 billion USD in 2021 and is growing by more than 20% yearly. With hundreds of thousands of registered drones over the continent, it seems to us that building U-spaces needs to be a top priority.


The good news is that there are organizations pushing to make this happen, such as the Global UTM Association, and the better news is that the technology to implement a U-space across Europe already exists. UTM services like High Lander’s Universal UTM fulfill all of the requirements listed above, and more. It provides a central hub that monitors and coordinates all uncrewed activity over areas of any size, ensuring that drones don’t conflict with other drones or crewed aircraft, that they avoid no-fly zones, and that they share the information required so that air traffic of all kinds can be tracked and monitored in as safely as is crewed aviation. In addition, the solution has already been field-tested in challenging conditions, proving itself capable of integrating with traditional air traffic control systems and handling heavy air traffic over entire regions.


I referred to Europe as the Old Continent earlier, but that nickname is a little ironic given that it holds some of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. We believe that the U-space won’t be long coming, and we look forward to the new chapter in European aviation.

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