The European Parliament last week backed proposals for new regulations for drone use across the European Union as part of wide-ranging reforms to the enabling legislation of the European Air Safety Agency (EASA).

Approved on 12 June, the new rules will establish a common system of drone certification, manufacturer and operator registries, and potential penalties for all drones across the EU, replacing the current patchwork of centralised and national regulations.

The European Commission first proposed reforms to the EU’s aviation safety framework, including the repeal of the existing EASA basic regulation, in December 2015. The existing rules date back to 2008 and include a handful of provisions covering drones heavier than 150kg, while rules for any drones below that weight have so far been left to the discretion of member states’ national legislatures.

In its preamble to the proposed reforms, the Commission said the increased use of drones in Europe “require adaption of the current regulatory framework,” which was characterised as “costly and burdensome” and obstructive to cross-border operations.

The 2015 draft, which covers all drones irrespective of size, included requirements that drones be designed to be safely controllable and manoeuvrable, built to take into account privacy and data protection “by design and by default”, and to be easily identifiable. Drones should also have built-in “features and functionalities” to ensure compliance with limitations on their operation in particular areas and beyond certain altitudes and distances from their operators, the Commission said.

The draft also suggested drone operators should be required to have the relevant knowledge and skills to operate the craft – including an awareness of EU and national rules on “safety, privacy, data protection, liability, insurance, security and environmental protection” – and that they, along with designers and manufacturers, should establish safety reporting systems.

The amended proposals approved last week added to these measures by calling for the registration of drones and their operators in national databases. These registries should be “digital, harmonised and interoperable” allowing the same basic data to be accessed throughout the EU, the new text says.

The amendments also include a call for the design, manufacturing and operation of drones – including their individual components and the personnel and companies that use them – to be subject to safety certification. This would leave drone makers and users open to fines, which the Commission can impose on any “legal or natural person to whom [EASA] has issued a certificate” and who infringes the new rules. The text suggests these fines shouldn’t exceed 4% of the annual turnover of the company or person in question, or, in the case of continued infringements, 2.5% of their average daily income or turnover.

In-house lawyers at a leading European manufacturer told ALN that such measures “could lead to potential enormous fines and penalties,” that far exceed those imposed by other regulatory bodies, such as the US Federal Aviation Authority.

Others noted the need for robust regulations in light of the Commission’s expectations for the European drone market, which it says will become a €15 billion-a-year industry over the next decade and create more than 150,000 jobs by the middle of the century. The introduction of fines goes a way towards “creating a safety legal framework akin to that of regular aircraft,” Camille Lallemand at DLA Piper in Paris tells ALN. “It may seem stringent, but considering the expectations for future use of UAS (freight and passenger carriage) it seems like the appropriate approach.”

On the whole, observers told ALN that harmonisation of drone rules was “a step in the right direction” for the industry, and gave “manufacturers (and operators) the clarity and predictability to develop products and service while facilitating the certification of such type of aircraft.”

The vote last week follows a series of publications and initiatives by EASA addressing drone use over the past two years. In December 2015, the agency released a technical opinion including a series of early proposals for a regulatory frameworks for drones, as well as setting out its three categories of unmanned aircraft operation – Open, Specific and Certified – based on an analysis of their risk levels. Earlier this year, EASA published a further opinion recommending requirements for the use of electronic identification systems, unique serial numbers for drones, and geo-awareness technology in the open and specific categories.

Meanwhile, in June last year, the EU proposed a framework for a new air traffic management system for “U-Space” – the airspace commonly used by drone flyers at altitudes lower than 150 metres – arguing in favour of the development of a largely automated system similar to that used for manned aviation, to ensure the same levels of safety at lower altitudes.