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Are The Drone Laws Changing?

Last updated on

July 24, 2019


    If you hadn’t already noticed, the ever-changing drone industry is facing a whole new beginning in terms of the rules and regulations. In light of the recent announcements by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), followed by the CAP 1789 document released by the CAA, we thought it was time to clear up some of the confusion and outline just what changes we can expect to see, when they’ll come into effect and what kind of impact they might have.

    The short version is that the way that drone operations are classified, and subsequently how permissions and authorisations to operate are allocated, is changing. The emphasis is no longer on it simply being commercial vs non-commercial flights, along with the various exemptions for flying BVLOS or above 400ft, for example. Instead EASA is proposing a system where the drones themselves are classified and held to set of manufacturing standards, while the flights themselves are evaluated based more on the type of operation and the risk involved.

    That doesn’t mean your PFCO is being thrown out of the window; more that the terminology or the permissions that it entitles you to might change as the transition to this new system evolves. The likelihood is that it will work in the favour of qualified pilots as long as you’re not looking to transport people or dangerous goods (risks on a par with manned aircraft), although a little extra training might be required to suit the new criteria.

    Europe will be the first region in the world to have a comprehensive set of rules ensuring safe, secure and sustainable operations of drones both, for commercial and leisure activities. Common rules will help foster investment, innovation and growth in this promising sector.

    Patrick Ky, Executive Director of EASA

    What laws are changing now?

    Absolutely nothing in the short-term that will impact on pilots or operators, so there’s no need to panic or cancel any plans to get qualified. To begin with, it’s worth pointing out that while much has been outlined, nothing is set in stone. Although EASA plays an integral role in safety standards across all aspects of aviation, the actual implementation of its plans and proposals falls down to the relevant governing body within its member states – in the case of the UK that’s the CAA.

    It’s now up to the CAA to adapt, amend or possibly even discount each piece of the framework that has been put forward – and with a year to work on it, the first changes won’t take effect until 01 July 2020. Obviously UK pilots can’t dismiss the possible impact of Brexit, but the CAA does seem intent on continuing its relationship with EASA regardless of what happens (there are plenty of non-European countries linked to the organisation), so if/when the UK does leave Europe, there’s every chance that we’ll still see the same changes taking effect.

    That said; don’t forget that the UK has already committed to bringing in its own drone registration system, along with the requirement for an online competency course and exam, which come into play on 30 November 2019. As of that date all operators of models weighing more than 250g (without fuel) will need to register – and display their registration number on all relevant craft. All being well it shouldn’t be more painful than a little admin plus the annual £16.50 fee. How this will change once the new EASA framework comes into effect remains to be seen.

    For the time being, until you hear otherwise from the government or the CAA (or relevant authority if you’re based elsewhere), all existing rules and regulations apply so for the best part of a year your daily operations can go on just as they always have. As always it is worth keeping an eye out for any updates as the UK government may also want to have its say – while the likes of the British Standards Institute is also working on implementing its own set of standards for the UK (and possibly wider) drone industry.


    How will I classify my drone?

    As you may have seen, one of the main changes EASA is looking to implement is to classify drones under the ‘CE’ kitemark-style branding. This will see five classes rated mainly by weight and the capability of the software attached. Many of the criteria are shared across classes and there are some finer details that might impact on specific use cases, but we’ll try to keep things fairly simple!

    CLASS C0: This covers drones that have a maximum take-off weight under 250g (all weights include payload) with a maximum speed of 9m/s (42.5mph). The craft should be able to fly no higher than 120m, equal to the 400ft barrier that became law in the UK last year, and if it has a follow-me mode then it can have a range of no more than 50m and requires the ability for the pilot to regain control at any given time. Electrically powered, it can have a nominal voltage not exceeding 24v (DC).

    As with all classes there are some safety requirements to reduce risks from propellers and sharp edges etc, plus a burden on the manufacturer to supply a detailed manual (and for the operator to read it!). Unlike the other classes, there are no requirements for unique serial numbers or ‘direct remote identification’.

    DJI Matrice 200 V2

    CLASS C1: This raises the maximum weight to 900g, but keeps the same top speed, follow-me range and maximum height – although this does allow craft that go beyond 400ft as long as there’s some kind of limiter in place to prevent the drone from doing so (at least not without permission). There is an added requirement for C1 drones to have a failsafe device in case of a ‘loss of data link’, which basically means that if you lose the signal, the craft can look after itself.

    This is also where the need for the aforementioned unique serial numbers and ‘direct remote identification’ come in (such as a transponder to pinpoint the take-off point, the drone’s course and location of the pilot), along with a ‘geo-awareness system’ that can keep the pilot notified of any surrounding dangers, as well as alerting them to on-board faults or a dwindling battery. Also introduced at this level is the need for lights, both to help with navigation and to improve visibility in low-light, and also limitations on sound levels (unless it’s a fixed-wing).


    CLASS C2: Upping the weight to 4kg (including payload remember), this class also requires some kind of limiter for that 120m barrier, but there’s no mention of maximum speeds or follow-me restrictions. Still based on electrical power, it does increase the voltage to 48v, and it also introduces tethered drones to the roster, with a maximum length of 50m and certain restrictions based on the tether’s strength.

    The same need for serial numbers, ID and geo-awareness apply, but there is also mention of including a selectable low-speed mode that offers a maximum cruising speed of 3m/s or around 6.7mph (unless it’s a fixed-wing). It’s worth noting that the safety and sturdiness requirements are also nudging up with every class, though without being specific on the exact demands.

    CLASS C3: We’re getting into the real big boys here, with the weight limit now up to 25kg, but with a maximum dimension of 3 metres. Pretty much everything outlined for the previous classes apply in terms of the height, follow-me modes and other smart flight features.

    CLASS C4: This class has the same maximum weight as C3 drones but without the 3m wingspan restriction. There’s also no mention of a need for serial numbers, ID software or geo-awareness. However, the big difference here is that C4 craft cannot have any kind of autonomous control modes (except for software tied to flight stabilisation or lost link assistance), so that might limit quite a few operations.


    Will Pre-Flight Risk Assessments Be Changing?

    The second major change is in how operations themselves are classified. As mentioned the term ‘commercial operations’ will no longer be a factor as and when this new system takes effect, and instead the degree of risk becomes the determining factor.

    OPEN: This is very much the low-risk category, which typically covers low weight craft, operating with visual line of sight (VLOS), at a safe distance from people and buildings, and carrying nothing dangerous or looking to drop items from the air. Flights that adhere to the criteria would not require operational authorisation, so in theory you could do low-risk Open commercial operations without the likes of a PFCO – although typically the insurance you’d need to do so legally would expect you to be qualified.

    SPECIFIC: An odd name for a rather widespread classification, but this is where the bulk of what we’d consider commercial operations would be covered. It accepts a slightly greater risk, the kind of which your PFCO would give you approval for. These would require authorisation from a competent authority (the CAA) or a ‘declaration by the pilot’ – so a PFCO for the former and you’d tell the CAA exactly what you’re planning to do for the latter, and they’d give you a yes or no.

    These operations would require a degree of risk assessment as well as having ‘mitigating measures’ in place should something go awry (these could be for a single op or for multiple ops across a specified time or within a named location). The CAA does say that a ‘standard scenario’ concept could be used, whereby a series of templates or guidelines for general operations are listed and, rather than getting each flight approved, an authorised pilot could simply use one of these scenarios and follow the requirements for each step.

    CERTIFIED: This is for high-risk operations that might be considered more on a par with manned aviation, such as transporting passengers, dangerous cargo and so on. Basically these are flights that can’t have those mitigating measures in place without having a certified operator in place and, crucially, also a certified drone. In simple terms, where the previous two could be considered situations where the pilot needs to be approved, this is where the craft itself must also be proven fit for duty.

    What is the Open Category?

    As well as the three risk-based classes, there are also three further sub-classes within the Open category based on how close the drone is being flown to people. A3 is the safe option, “far from people”, with A2 getting “close to people” and A1 being “over people”. A close distance has been listed as 30m, or down to 5m at a low-speed setting (such as the 3m/s requirement listed for C2 craft) and there are further acknowledgements of flying over people in your control or for an unexpected person or persons wandering into your flight line and the pilot being able to safely navigate away and mitigate any risk.

    There are also some additional outlines towards airworthiness and operational risk assessment, but nothing that shouldn’t already make sense to any qualified operator. There are also some details on the registration of UAS operators and certified drones “whose operation may present a risk to safety, security, privacy and protection of personal data or environment”. This would also apply in the Open category to drones over 250g or lighter models that are equipped with a camera or some other kind of sensor for collecting data, or in instances where collision with a human could transfer energy greater than 80 joules (one estimate puts that at a 250g drone travelling at around 80mph).

    The documents also suggest a minimum age for pilots for the Open and Specific categories of 16, although this doesn’t include Class C0 or ‘toy’ drones, or “privately built” models under 250g. EASA has said this age can be lowered at each member’s discretion as low as 12 for Open and 14 for Specific operations, and the CAA says it does intend to lower the age level. However, we should point out that younger pilots will still be able to fly, as long as they have supervision from someone old enough – although the younger person must have passed the ‘foundation’ test (perhaps the CAA’s basic competency test coming into effect in November?).

    In summary…

    Although things might be changing, there is much that will remain the same – certainly in the short term but even when the new system does come into effect next year. The main difference will no doubt be in getting used to figuring out exactly how each class of drone relates to the degree of risk to give you a final equation of what kind of permissions and authorisation are needed. It may sound a little complicated now, but no more so than clarifying that grey area between what currently constitutes commercial work and what doesn’t.

    But in many ways, having a PFCO or equivalent the extra training or approvals for things like BVLOS or some of the newer criteria that the EASA plans outlines should put you in good stead for the most of your work when the transition begins, and (such as some simple training to enable Open flights within that closer A2 proximity, or more detailed courses for Certified operations) would feel much the same as things do now. The bigger picture, Brexit pending, is that this could see a regulation system that is transferable across European borders – though with all permissions rooted to your home country followed by some polite communications with the local authorities on each trip.

    We’re also quite comfortable with the fact that the new classes put an emphasis on the quality of the craft itself. We know that most manufacturers are driven by safety and quality but having tangible specifics that clearly outline what class they would appear in should help to ensure a uniform approach to the manufacturing processes, and hopefully encourage more and more companies to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s in order to maximise their latest design for commercial appeal.

    However, right now the ball is very much in the CAA’s court (and that of every other EASA member state) and so things will no doubt adapt and evolve a little in the months ahead. So there’s no need to feel intimidated or overly concerned about any changes as there’ll be plenty of time to figure things out (and maybe have your say) – and of course, we’ll keep you posted on any of the headline announcements just as soon as we can!

    To find out more you can read the EASA announcement HERE, along with the CAA’s CAP 1789 document HERE. Both have links to the two documents in full if you really want to get into the finer details of what’s being proposed.


    What laws should I follow now?

    For an overview of the current rules and regulations for drone pilots in the UK it would be in the interest of any pilots considering a move into commercial drone industry to take a CAA Drone Training Course. Day 1 & 2 of the course also know as Ground School Training is available to take as a separate module if required. Find out more about the format of the two days here.


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