In response to market growth evolution in the use of civil unmanned aircraft, or drones, on December 24, 2015, the French Ministry of Environment published two new Ministerial Decisions[1] regulating the use of drones. These Ministerial Decisions repeal the two existing Ministerial Decisions of April 11, 2012,[2] and while they do not change the general regulatory framework, they bring about some clarification, alleviate some administrative constraints, and establish new technical requirements for these aircraft.

The regulation is refocused on the three already known types of drone activities, which were redefined according to how the drones are used rather than their physical or performance specifications. "Model aircraft flying" (aéromodélisme) is now defined as the use of an unmanned aircraft for strictly leisure or competition purposes. "Experimentation" is defined as the use of an unmanned aircraft for development or adjustment of an aircraft or its command system. "Specific activities" (activités particulières) no longer consist of a list of definite items but now encompass anything that does not fall into the previous categories, whether or not the activity is commercial and implies payment.

For the specific activities and experimentation, the new regulatory framework results in fewer administrative constraints and less paperwork. Some requirements for technical documents have been eliminated or lightened. Some authorization requirements for activities or aircraft use have also been eased by replacing them with a simple notification to the authorities prior to operation.

The new regulation also modifies technical requirements, which could affect how the drones are designed. Some of the predefined operational scenarios for specific activities have had their perimeter extended to allow for heavier aircraft, and the maximum distance and altitude for the requirement to operate the aircraft within the operator's line-of-sight has been increased.

Most significantly, the new Ministerial Decisions introduce new technical requirements for drones that will require adjustments in the fabrication of the aircraft. The fail-safe mechanism that shuts down motors in case of an emergency must now be completely independent from the aircraft's automated trajectory control measures and must be able to function in case of failure of the latter. Furthermore, for aircraft weighing more than two kilograms that are used in populated areas, the third-party protection measure already in place (usually a parachute deployed after the motors have been automatically stopped) now must automatically engage, unless the aircraft is capable of automated vertical landing without a third party located near the landing area or unless the aircraft is equipped with a return-home feature.

As a reminder, the new regulation still requires that the emission parameters and the frequency bands used to control the aircraft and carry out the activities (such as video feed) comply with the existing applicable regulation. The authorities explain that as long as the aircraft conform to these parameters and use the designated frequency bands (citing as an example an emitting power of 100 mW in the 2,4 GHz band), an authorization to use the frequencies is not necessary.

Finally, the new regulation introduces three new general principles:

  • Camera shots are authorized for model aircraft flying only if the main objective of the flight remains leisure or competition, and provided that the shots are not commercially exploited.
  • Unmanned aircraft activities must comply with data protection and privacy regulations.
  • Night flights are permitted for model aircraft only in designated areas and under specific conditions established by the authorities. For specific activities, night flights are now subject to prior authorization by the administration.

As a result of the new Ministerial Decisions, the administrative burden on professionals has been substantially reduced, but there are still many more formalities to fulfill prior to any operation. And while manufacturers are not specifically targeted by the new regulation, the two Ministerial Decisions introduce new limitations and technical parameters that should lead to changes in the conception and design of future-generation models.