Drones enter EU regulatory debate

drone entering

Last week, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) launched a consultation on its Advance Notice of Proposed Amendment (A-NPA) on the introduction of a regulatory framework for the operation of drones. The notice reflects the main points of the so-called Riga Declaration, incorporates the Agency’s own Concept of Operations for Drones and advances 33 proposals on the framework and drone categories regulation. The results of the consultation that runs to 25 September will be considered in the development of the new EU regulatory framework which could revolutionise the way drone operations are regulated.

Following the Future of Flying conference that took place in Riga on 6 March, the European Commission tasked the EASA with developing a regulatory framework for drone operations, including concrete proposals for the regulation of low-risk drone operations. In Riga the European aviation community established a list of key principles that the future EU regulatory framework should take into account. The need for proportionate rules based on the risk of each drone operation was among the main points highlighted in the Riga Declaration.

Currently, the EU framework is marked by fragmentation and diverse requirements. A great majority of drones are regulated by national aviation legislation, given that the EU regulation is limited to drones with a maximum take-off mass (MTOM) above 150kg and which are not used for, amongst others, policing, firefighting or rescue service. At the national level 18 Member States have adopted or are about to adopt regulations on small drones. While there are several common principles, national regulations are not harmonised: a drone operator licensed in one country still needs to obtain authorisation to operate in another Member State, as there is no obligation for mutual recognition of certificates. Considering the economic potential of drones and their operations, with this new framework the EU will seek to promote harmonised conditions for the safe, secure and environmentally-friendly development of the drone industry.

The EESA is proposing that all drones be regulated at the EU level, scrapping the current 150kg limit. Within this new framework, national aviation security agencies would be in charge of implementation. The agency is proposing to regulate commercial and non-commercial operations, considering that the same drone could be used for both and represents the same risk to uninvolved parties. As for operation types, three categories based on the level of risk involved have been put forward. Ranging from low to high risk, the categories will be called open, specific and certified, and each will be governed by its own specific set of rules (eg operation limitations, authorisation procedures, trainings etc) which become increasingly stricter. While there would be no involvement of the EU aviation authority in the open category, the regulatory regime of the certified category would be similar to manned aviation.

While addressing the issues of safety, security, privacy and noise pollution, the new framework should provide a favourable environment for the drone industry’s development. As underlined by the EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc, “this technology has now become available for all kinds of very practical applications. It was obvious to me that these applications will change our lives and our businesses”. Drones have also crossed into the European Parliament: British Conservative MEP Jacqueline Foster recently presented her draft report on safe use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the field of civil aviation in the Parliament’s Transport Committee.

Thanks to the EASA consultation, manufacturers and operators of drones and the general public have now the opportunity to participate in the shaping of the regulatory framework for the operation of drones in the EU. They must ensure they don’t miss that opportunity.

This autumn, following the EASA consultation, FTI Consulting will prepare a snapshot providing a detailed analysis of how the future EU regulatory framework for drones is likely to look like.

Miroslav Pospisil is a Senior Consultant at FTI Consulting Brussels.

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