The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has released a formal opinion on how to keep drone flights in Europe safe and secure for all. The document is the first step toward continent-wide regulation by the European Commission (EC).
EASA’s proposals could be formally enshrined in European law before the end of the year.
The document states: “The challenge was to reach a good balance between technical requirements, pilot competency, and operational limitations, enabling safe and secure UAS [unmanned aerial systems] operations, while respecting people’s privacy, protecting the environment, and at the same time enabling the development of the market for UAS.”
Divvying up the drones
EASA seeks to separate all drone flights into three distinct categories: open, specific, and certified.
The ‘open’ category refers to hobbyist pilots and most commercial missions; the ‘specific’ section covers commercial missions that require special permission; and ‘certified’ flights refers to a future in which large drones may one day enter our airspace. The most obvious example of this would be aerial transport vehicles.
With these three categories in place, EASA proposes specific regulations for each.
In line with the UK’s upcoming Drone Bill, recreational pilots with drones weighing between 250 grams and 25 kilograms will have a maximum operating altitude for their machines of 394ft. In addition, they will be required to pass competency tests and register with their national aviation body.
Commercial pilots, as is already the case in several EU countries, will need a licence to operate.
EASA also seeks to ensure that drones weighing between 900 grams and four kilograms have some form of electronic identification, a move that will need to have manufacturers such as DJI on board. The Chinese drone giant has already debuted its Aeroscope solution, which is designed to track and monitor drones near sensitive locations.
Challenges beyond the line of sight
Arguably, the main challenge facing aviation authorities is accommodating beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. It is this type of mission, combined with the rise of automation, that represents a huge opportunity for organisations in construction, agriculture, and security, for example.
EASA’s opinion states that hobbyist pilots – model aircraft aside – will be banned from losing sight of their drones. However, plenty of affordable drones are capable of flying miles away from their operators, making enforcement challenging.
Commercial flyers will have to “declare” a BVLOS flight in advance to the appropriate regulator, says EASA. It adds that operators will have to “perform a risk assessment and to propose mitigation measures that the competent authority will analyse and approve through an authorisation”, should the mission go outside of the organisation’s pre-determined scenarios.
Laws surrounding BVLOS flights, as well as the hoops that companies will need to jump through to get them authorised, will determine how business-friendly EASA’s evolving drone regulations will be.
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EASA doesn’t appear to propose measures beyond those outlined in the British government’s Drone Bill, which is expected to come into effect in the Spring. This suggests that many authorities are circling the same outline rules as the industry revs up for takeoff.
However, once drone cargo flights begin internationally, military deployments increase, and – in the longer term – passenger drones become more commonplace, there will need to be international harmonisation of drone regulations – in line with the global environment for manned aircraft.
The last remaining hurdles to widespread pilotless flights worldwide are cultural on the one hand – many aviation authorities are conservative, as is the case in the UK and US – and security related on the other. As the recent report by Cambridge, Oxford, and Yale universities et al suggests, the combination of AI and drones reveals a whole new set of security challenges. These may prove to be far more complex for the authorities to tackle.