Eurpean regulatory framework for the operation of unmanned aircraft

Just like in the rest of the world, also in Europe, use of unmanned aircraft (drones) keeps increasing and need for regulations is emerging. From real estate to aerial filming, aerial surveillance to mapping applications; almost in every industry drones find their way to provide useful aerial data. Currently each nation declares its local rules. For example the Netherlands requires RPAS licenses for UAV pilots. The French DGAC requires type certificates for every operated drone on the French territory. Not only the French manufacturer Deltadrone or Parrot, but also manufacturers such as DJI or 3DR drones also cannot operate without a type certificate. The German government requires every drone above 500g (1,1lbs) to be registered. The Spanish Aviation Authority authorizes UAV flight schools; whereas flying in the cities is strictly forbidden. So, basic national safety rules apply. But EASA wants to harmonize different rules across the EU countries and also wants to address a number of key safeguards in a coherent way. On December 18, 2015 EASA (the European Authority in Aviation Safety) has published a formal Technical Opinion on the operation of drones. We have summarized the highlights here for you. In 2016 and 2017, new rules will be developed, or existing ones will be amended, within the framework described in the Technical Opinion. Therefore we strongly advise you to visit the EASA website for all relevant work and always check with your local authorities before you fly.

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The opinion lays down the foundation for all future work for the development of rules, guidance material, as wells as, safety promotion to ensure unmanned aircraft are operated safely and their impact on the safety of the aviation system is minimized. It includes 27 concrete proposals for a regulatory framework and for low-risk operations of all unmanned aircraft irrespective of their maximum certified take-off mass (MTOM). This regulatory framework is operation centric, proportionate, risk- and performance-based. The proposals focus on how the drones will be used rather than their physical characteristics.

Categories of operation of unmanned aircraft

Proposal 1

Establish three categories for the operation of unmanned aircraft taking into account the nature and risk of the particular activity.

  • ‘Open’ category (low risk): Safety is ensured through compliance with operational limitations, mass limitations as a proxy of energy, product safety requirements7 and a minimum set of operational rules.
  • ‘Specific’ category (medium risk): Authorization by an NAA, possibly assisted by a QE, following a risk assessment performed by the operator. A manual of operations lists the risk mitigation measures. For the ‘specific’ category, the operator needs an authorization after a satisfactory risk assessment is made.
  • ‘Certified’ category (higher risk): Requirements comparable to those for manned aviation. Oversight by NAA (issue of licences and approval of maintenance, operations, training, ATM/ANS and aerodromes organizations) and by the Agency (design and approval of foreign organizations). For the ‘certified’ category, the established system of airworthiness and operational approvals ensures compliance with regulations.

Use of product legislation

Proposal 2

Manufacturers and importers of unmanned aircraft have to comply with a dedicated product legislation, and will have to issue information to respective customers on operational limitations applicable to the ‘open’ category. This approach will be applicable to smaller unmanned aircraft and an upper threshold needs to be established by the IRS mentioned below.

Proposal 3

The Agency will develop as a matter of priority the IRs that could qualify as specific product legislation defining the safety characteristics (e.g. kinetic energy, performance, characteristics, loss-of-link capability) appropriate for the category and subcategory of the unmanned aircraft. It is envisaged to include also provisions for environmental compatibility. The detailed rules will this way drive the standard setting process.

Use of qualified entities (QEs)

Proposal 4

Qualified Entities (QEs) will be accredited and audited by the NAAs or the Agency using the risk-based oversight concept.

Oversight and enforcement

Proposal 5

EASA MS have to designate the responsible authorities for the enforcement of the regulations, in particular in the ‘open’ category where the recommendation is to rely on law enforcement agencies.

Environmental protection

Yet there is no concrete proposal. However, EASA states that with regard to the environment, nuisance from noise and emissions should be mitigated. Noise is a complex issue that requires a range of mitigation measures. Although the current framework foresees regulatory limitations on noise only for unmanned aircraft subject to type certification (‘certified’ category), noise even from unmanned aircraft in the ‘open’ category should be abated as much as possible. This can be achieved by installing the latest noise-reducing technology to limit noise at source and by operating the unmanned aircraft in a considerate way, striving to minimize nuisance to other persons as much as possible. Operating restrictions defined at local level could be another measure including e.g. flight altitude limitations, no-unmanned aircraft zones or curfews. The draft Essential Requirements envisage that unmanned aircraft shall comply with the environmental performance requirements set out in Annex III to the proposed draft Basic Regulation.

Implementing Rules (IRs)

Proposal 6

The Agency will develop as a matter of priority a dedicated IR for the regulation of the ‘open’ and ‘specific’ categories of unmanned aircraft operations.

Proposal 7

It is currently not foreseen to have stand-alone IRs for the ‘certified’ category. Instead, the IRs for manned aviation will be adapted.

Operational limitations and areas of operation

The ‘area’ or ‘airspace’ of operation determines the severity of an unmanned aircraft crashing or out of control. To mitigate the risk for people on the ground, the operation should be performed with adequate safe distance. While for very small unmanned aircraft the awareness of the pilot would ensure adequate protection of other people, this needs to be defined more rigorously with risk increasing with mass.

Proposal 8

To ensure safety, environmental protection, as well as security and privacy, the Agency will define limitation zones and criteria and guidance for the usage of such zones cooperatively with the MS and in conformity with Articles 1 and 9 of the Chicago Convention. The NAAs may define ‘zones’ where no operation is allowed without authority approval or with additional limitations (e.g. additional functions like geographical limitation).The Agency will determine interfaces and acceptable data format standards (e.g. for map data) that should be used to provide the information on no-fly or restricted zones in an open web interface. This information could be made available through service providers, presented through a smartphone app, or directly uploaded to the unmanned aircraft.

Technology and airworthiness

The affordable and easy operation of unmanned aircraft offers the possibility to almost everybody to become an airspace user, but it cannot be assumed that all actors have a strong aviation culture and are aware of the safety consequences their actions have. Embedded safety features, identification means and technologies can improve compliance with regulations and facilitate enforcement in practice and can mitigate the lack of pilot competence.

Proposal 9

To prevent unintended flight outside safe areas and to increase compliance with applicable regulations, a functionality that automatically generates geographical limitations and identification of the unmanned aircraft for certain unmanned aircraft and operation areas should be mandated. The IRs will define the scope of such mandate based on a thorough RIA.

Proposal 10

Standards for geographical limitation and identification systems will be endorsed by the Agency and could be referenced in the market regulations system in order to ensure that consumer products comply with these standards, and to ensure harmonization at technical level. This will enable manufacturers to develop adequate equipment and to declare compliance with these standards. Detailed functionalities and related requirements will be defined during development of IRs and standards including definitions for operation where such limitations and systems are not appropriate to be mandated.

‘Harmless’ subcategory

As requested by many commenters, a harmless category for very small unmanned aircraft, e.g. toy aircraft or nano drones that cannot cause serious injuries or significant damage is envisaged. A considerably high number of consumer products which are operated in all kinds of operational environments, fall into this subcategory. This subcategory includes tethered balloons, kites, toys as well as some small models.

Proposal 11

A ‘harmless’ subcategory of unmanned aircraft only subject to market regulations and local restrictions should be established. They should not be operated in a careless or reckless manner. Operating instructions will come with do’s and don’ts on leaflets in the box. Exact criteria need to be defined through the rulemaking process.

As a starting point, the 250-gram MTOM limit could be used; this limit is in line with the Danish study on mass threshold for ‘harmless’ unmanned aircraft.

Compliance with zones

To mitigate the risks to third parties on the ground and in the air, different limitations are foreseen for the operation of unmanned aircraft. One key element is the definition of different areas with limitations, e.g. due to high population density, proximity to airports or critical infrastructure.

Proposal 12

All unmanned aircraft operations in the ‘open’ category must be conducted within the zones defined by the competent authority, and respect the defined limitations such as:

  • zones where active geographical limitation system is required;
  • zones where a MTOM is defined;
  • zones where identification and registration is required;
  • zones with additional environmental protection requirements; and
  • no fly zones.

Distance from uninvolved persons on the ground

The risk to persons on the ground is mitigated through the use of low-energy aircraft and by requiring a safe distance with respect to persons on the ground unless they are involved in the operation and under the control of the operator.

Proposal 13

To reduce the risk to uninvolved persons on the ground for all unmanned aircraft in the ‘open’ category, except for the ‘harmless’ subcategory:

  • flights over crowds are not permitted;
  • the pilot is responsible for the safe operation and safe distance from uninvolved persons and property on the ground; and
  • the minimum safe distance for unmanned aircraft in the highest-risk subcategory of the ‘open’ category is proposed to be 50 m.

Separation from other airspace users

To separate unmanned aircraft operations from normal manned aviation, operations in the ‘open’ category need to be performed in direct VLOS where the pilot is capable of and responsible for ensuring separation from other airspace users.

Proposal 14

To separate unmanned aircraft from other airspace users for all unmanned aircraft in the ‘open’ category, except for the ‘harmless’ subcategory:

  • only flights in direct VLOS of the pilot are allowed;
  • an unmanned aircraft in the ‘open’ category shall have a system ensuring that it limits its performances to acceptable values, in particular that it cannot operate at a height exceeding 150 m above the ground or water. The pilot is responsible for the safe separation from any other airspace user(s) and shall give right of way to any other airspace user(s); and
  • the pilot needs to have adequate pilot competence according to the performance of the unmanned aircraft.

Pilot competence

The basic principle is that the pilot is responsible for operation and:

  • shall give the right of way to other airspace users;
  • shall not be negligent or reckless;
  • needs to be fit to fly;
  • needs to check that the unmanned aircraft and the equipment are also fit to fly ; and
  • is responsible for safety, privacy, security and environmentally compatible operation.
The key element in the ‘open’ category is, therefore, the responsibility and awareness of the operators. This starts with the need to make unmanned aircraft buyers aware that they operate an aircraft. Clear operation instructions and leaflets listing the dos and don’ts for unmanned aircraft operators should be available to every customer buying a consumer unmanned aircraft. Such leaflets have already been developed by some EASA MS. Internet tools, as the one supported by the Commission, may also contribute to raise awareness.

Proposal 15

To ensure compliance with the limitations and conditions for the operation of unmanned aircraft, except within the ‘harmless’ subcategory, evidence of pilot competence shall be required for a pilot operating an unmanned aircraft that is not automatically limited in performance according to accepted standards.

MTOM in the ‘open’ category

Proposal 16

An MTOM of 25 kg for unmanned aircraft is proposed for the ‘open’ category based on current thresholds used by EASA MS and internationally (e.g. USA, Canada, Brazil) for the regulation of small unmanned aircraft or models:
  • Only unmanned aircraft with an MTOM below 25 kg are allowed in the ‘open’ category.

Additional subcategories

Additional subcategories can enable the practical implementation of the division in risk classes together with other simple limits for height above ground, distance from uninvolved persons and pilot qualification. The proposed thresholds in A-NPA 2015-10 were commented quite controversially, but, in principle, a break-down in subcategories was appreciated.

Proposal 17

As proposed by A-NPA 2015-10 and in line with the current practice, in most EASA MS, subcategories will be established for the ‘open’ category to allow for a more flexible adaptation to the risk. A comprehensive impact assessment and rulemaking process is needed to establish additional subcategories to define the applicability of:

  • higher technical requirements (e.g. redundancies);
  • increased minimum distance from uninvolved persons; and
  • limited access to operation areas.

‘Specific’ category

Proposal 18

Operation of unmanned aircraft outside any of the limits of the ‘open’ category requires specific mitigation of a higher risk to persons and properties on the ground and to other airspace users due to the fact that one or several of the safety barriers of the ‘open’ category are exceeded. Each specific risk needs to be analyzed and mitigated through a safety risk assessment.

Specific operation risk assessment (SORA)

In order to reduce the risk to an acceptable level, a SORA shall be performed by the operator taking into account all the elements that contribute to mitigating the risk associated with the particular operation. Key factors of the risk assessment are the following:

  • area of operation: population density, areas with special protection, configuration of the terrain, and weather;
  • airspace: effect on ATM, class of airspace, segregation, and air traffic control (ATC) procedures;
  • design of the unmanned aircraft: functions provided, redundancy and safety features;
  • type of unmanned aircraft operation: operational procedures;
  • pilot competence;
  • organizational factors of the operator; and
  • effect on environment.
The operator is responsible for providing a SORA and an operations manual (OM) to the competent NAA (or QE) as the basis of the OA.

Proposal 19

For all unmanned aircraft in the ‘specific’ category, a SORA shall be performed by the operator taking into account all the elements that contribute to the risk of the particular operation. For this purpose, the operator shall:

  • provide to the competent NAA (or QE) all the information required for a preliminary applicability check of the category of operation;
  • provide to the competent NAA (or QE) a SORA covering both the unmanned aircraft and the operation, identifying all the risks related to the specific operation, and proposing adequate risk-mitigation means; and
  • compile an appropriate manual containing all the required information, descriptions, conditions and limitations for the operation, including training and qualification for personnel, maintenance of the unmanned aircraft and its systems, as well as occurrence reporting and supplier oversight procedures.

Standard scenarios and mitigations

The majority of expected operators in the ‘specific’ category are not traditional aviation organizations but small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) using an unmanned aircraft or even a small fleet of unmanned aircraft as ‘tool’ to replace traditional equipment like cranes, or to replace dangerous activities like climbing on industrial infrastructure for inspections. These users have no experience in performing safety risk assessments and they need simple solutions for standard activities like:

  • media use in urban environment;
  • industrial inspections;
  • precision farming and monitoring;
  • infrastructure inspections (power lines, railways, etc.); and
  • large tethered vehicles.

Proposal 20

Industry and standardization bodies are requested to provide standard solutions to address the risks associated with the use of unmanned aircraft in standard scenarios. Together with standard manuals and procedures, the operation authorization (OA) process would be radically simplified.

‘Special provisions for operations such as model aircraft’

Today, there are many operations of vehicles below 150 kg that will be impacted by an extension of European regulation, e.g. the operation of model aircraft.

Proposal 21

National or local arrangements for the operation of unmanned aircraft should be deemed to be approved by the competent authority (‘grandfathered’) or used as a basis for the issuance of an OA.

Operation Authorization (OA)

The ‘specific’ category is a tool to treat particular operations with requirements proportionate to the risk posed by unmanned aircraft that are capable of performing a certain operation within certain limitations. The outcome would be an OA defining the limitations under which the particular operation with particular equipment in a given condition is safe. These limitations could be a combination of airworthiness (to ensure the reliability of critical equipment) and operational limitations where certain procedures or pilot training could be used to mitigate the risks.

Proposal 22

For all unmanned aircraft in the ‘specific’ category, the competent authority of the State of the operator (or an approved QE) shall be responsible to issue an OA to an operator after the review and agreement with the operator’s SORA. The competent authority is the one of the State where the operator has its operational and financial control. The OA should be recognized by the State where the operation takes place. The competent authorities of the State where the operation takes place can only define additional local limitations and conditions (for security reasons, forbidden areas, etc.).

Proposal 23

For all unmanned aircraft in the ‘specific’ category, the operation shall be performed according to the limitations and conditions defined in the OA:

  • The operator shall not carry out specific operations, unless holding a valid OA;
  • The operator shall ensure that all involved personnel is sufficiently qualified and familiar with the relevant operational procedures and conditions;
  • Before the initiation of any operation, the operator is responsible for collecting the required information on permanent and temporary limitations and conditions and to comply with any additional requirement or limitation defined by the competent authority of the State where the operation takes place or for requesting specific authorization.

Use of approved organizations or equipment — ‘Certified’ category

Certification will be required for operations with an associated higher risk due to the kind of operation, or might be requested on a voluntary basis by organizations providing services (such as remote piloting) or equipment (such as detect and avoid). When unmanned aviation risks rise to a level similar to that of normal manned aviation, the operation would be placed in the ‘certified’ category of operations. These operations and the unmanned aircraft involved therein would be treated in the classic aviation manner: multiple certificates would be issued (as for manned aviation) plus certificates specific to unmanned aircraft.

Remote operator certificate (ROC)

A ROC is foreseen in the ‘certified’ category for high-risk operations of a wider scope that exceed the applicability of the safety risk assessment. Operators holding a ROC could be granted the privilege to authorize their own OAs and later changes also for operation in the ‘specific’ category when their capabilities are assessed and considered appropriate within a given scope. For example, a company conducting aerial surveillance with an unmanned aircraft fitted with a camera under a ROC may be granted the privilege to change the unmanned aircraft model or authorize the operation in a different area.

Proposal 24

For all operations in the ‘certified’ category, the operator shall hold a ROC and any pilot shall be licensed. The organizations responsible for the design, production, maintenance and training shall demonstrate their capability by holding respectively design, production, maintenance and training organization approvals when required due to the risk posed by the operation. The IRs will define the organizational requirements for the operator to qualify for a ROC and to obtain adequate privileges in order to authorize/modify its own operations.

Airworthiness, organizational and personnel approvals

The ROC holder must ensure that all the equipment related to the operation, either airborne or on the ground, has been granted the appropriate design approval and complies with the limitations and conditions of the aircraft TC or restricted type certificate (RTC), and with the requirements for the type of airspace for which approval is requested.

Proposal 25

In order to operate an unmanned aircraft in the ‘certified’ category, the airworthiness of the aircraft and its compliance with environmental standards shall be ensured in the same way as it is done today for manned aviation by issuing a TC or RTC for the type, and a certificate of airworthiness (CofA) or restricted CofA and noise certificate for the particular unmanned aircraft. The TC or RTC might cover the complete unmanned aircraft system including the unmanned aircraft and the components on the ground (like the control station), or may cover only the unmanned aircraft and its airborne systems. The limitations and conditions for the compatible ground control stations and command and control link including bandwidth, latency and reliability requirements will be established under the TC or RTC. The oversight and control of suppliers providing services (e.g. navigation, communication, control) or of control and release of equipment used to control the unmanned aircraft can be performed under the operator approval.

Proposal 26

Parts or equipment involved in the operation of unmanned aircraft might be approved independently from the unmanned aircraft itself. The IRs will define the required processes based on the ‘European Technical Standard Order (ETSO)’ process. The process for release and continuing airworthiness oversight needs to be adapted as equipment might not be installed on certified unmanned aircraft. This might cover ground stations or qualified ‘detect and avoid equipment’ installed on unmanned aircraft in the ‘specific’ category.

Certification Specifications (CSs)

CSs will be adopted by the Agency covering a broad range of different configurations such as: fixed wing, rotorcraft, airships, and balloons. A-NPA 2015-06 on the reorganisation of airworthiness requirements for small aeroplanes (Reorganisation of Part 23 and CS-2317) could be seen as an example for performance-based CSs where requirements are reduced to safety objectives and detailed standards related to specific technologies are within referenced industry standards.

Proposal 27

CSs will be adopted by the Agency covering a broad range of different unmanned aircraft configurations, defining the safety and environmental protection objectives. Industry standards will be referenced allowing for fast reaction on technical and operational developments.

Authority approval and oversight

CSs will be adopted by the Agency covering a broad range of different configurations such as: fixed wing, rotorcraft, airships, and balloons. A-NPA 2015-06 on the reorganisation of airworthiness requirements for small aeroplanes (Reorganisation of Part 23 and CS-2317) could be seen as an example for performance-based CSs where requirements are reduced to safety objectives and detailed standards related to specific technologies are within referenced industry standards.

Proposal 27

The responsibilities of the Agency and of the NAAs in the ‘certified’ category are the same as for manned aircraft; meaning that the Agency exercises the responsibilities of the State of Design and MS retain their responsibilities as State of Manufacture, State of Operator, etc.

What’s next

This Technical Opinion will be used as the basis for rulemaking activities in the following months. The first priority is IRs for the categorisation of unmanned aircraft operations and for the ‘open’ and ‘specific’ categories. The IRs will be prepared as soon as possible so that they could guide the standard-setting process, support the national regulatory process and be formally adopted shortly after the proposed draft Basic Regulation is amended to reflect the new Agency competence.
In parallel, the work on the ‘certified’ category could start as large unmanned aircraft are already within the Agency’s scope and today unmanned aircraft can receive an RTC or a permit to fly. The full integration in non-segregated airspace may take some more time as essential technologies are not yet fully mature for implementation. Based on the first deliverables from JARUS, consultations can be launched on dedicated subjects, e.g. airworthiness specifications for unmanned aircraft and safety risk assessment process for specific operations.
Further proposals for amending the IRs for the ‘certified’ category and adapting operational procedures for the ‘specific’ category need to be aligned with the modifications of the current Basic Regulation as proposed in the draft Basic Regulation, the progress in technical development and international activities (JARUS, ICAO).
A first set of rulemaking deliverables (NPAs) can be expected for:

  • CSs for unmanned aeroplanes/rotorcraft (Q2/2017).
  • IRs for the ‘open’ category including proposals for requirements for safety, environmental protection, performance-limiting and identification functions as basis for the implementation of market regulations. The associated NPA will be published in the course of 2016 depending on the evolution of the discussions on the content of the proposed draft Basic Regulation. The first step will be to perform the RIAs necessary to define the regulatory options to define the scope of the mandate for geographical limitations and for the definitions of the subcategories including the ‘harmless’ one.
  • IRs for the ‘specific’ category based on the JARUS risk assessment process (Q1/2017).
  • adaptation of IRs for manned aviation to introduce licenses for remote pilots, the ROC, and unmanned aircraft specific elements like ‘ground control station’ for the ‘certified’ category (as soon as deliverables from JARUS are available).
  • The terms of reference for those tasks will be issued in the first quarter of 2016.


Local UAV Rules

Argentina ANAC
Australia CASA
Austria Austro Control
Belgium FOD
Brazil ANAC
Canada TC
China CAAC
Colombia ACC
Croatia CCAA
Cyprus MOC
Czech Republic CAA
Egypt MOC
Estonia DMT
European Union EASA
Finland TRAFI
France DGAC
Germany LBA
Greece HCAA
Hong Kong CAD
Hungary NKH
Iceland AIP
India DGCA
Indonesia DGCA
Ireland IAA
Israel CAA
Italy ENAC
Japan JUAV
Kenya KCAA
Korea, South KOCA
Latvia CAA Latvia
Luxembourg DAC
Macau AACM
Malaysia DCA
Malta TM
Mexico DGAC
Netherlands MIM
New Zealand CAANZ
Norway CAA Norway
Portugal ANAC
Qatar CAA Qatar
Romania CAA Romania
Russia FAVT
Singapore CAAS
Slovakia Dppravny Urad
Slovenia URA
South Africa CAA SA
Spain SEG
Sweden Transportstyrelsen
Switzerland BAZL
Taiwan CAA Taiwan
Thailand AVI
Turkey SHGM
United Arab Emirates GCAA
United Kingdom UK CAA
United States of America FAA
Vietnam CAAV