The evolution of drones and their use continues apace in Europe. This is a practical concern for small drones, which are operated at low altitude with a very wide range of operational profiles. Indeed the operating environment may be more complex than in traditional manned aviation; for example the urban environment.

Regulating small drone operations is challenging. On the one hand the variety of small drone designs, operating profiles and environments requires sufficiently versatile regulation if industrial development is not to be stifled. On the other hand, commercial and safety considerations require a degree of regulatory clarity.

Such considerations are driving regulatory developments, as exemplified in Europe by the proposed Unmanned Aircraft regulation (in NPA 2017-05; which we will call the "Drones Regulation") and the "U-space blueprint".

The Drones Regulation - NPA 2017-05

Under the current "Basic Regulation" (Regulation (EC) 216/2008), drones having a mass of less than 150kg fall under national regulation. That is expected to change in the first half of this year, with adoption of a replacement basic regulation. At that point, all private and commercial drone operations in a European Member State (or applicable territory) will fall within a uniform European regulatory regime, regardless of their mass.

In anticipation of the new basic regulation, last year EASA produced the consultation draft Drones Regulation. That draft sets out a proposed regulatory framework which would cover small drones, from mass-produced toys to those used for commercial purposes.

The proposal anticipates the adoption of the Drones Regulation in the first quarter of 2018, with certification specifications, acceptable means of compliance and guidance being issued in the second quarter. The proposal would require all drones to be operated in accordance with the regulation after 3 years from adoption (anticipated to be in 2021).

The Drones Regulation sets out a detailed comprehensive framework. Low-risk categories of operation would be subject to only basic limitations. As operational risk increases, progressively more involved safety measures and regulatory requirements would be applied, culminating in risk assessments and operation specific permission by the aviation authority. The more basic "open" category of drone operation would involve drones having mass below 25kg. If the drone or its operation (regardless of mass) falls outside the various limits imposed under the "open" category, a more involved regulatory approach would apply under the "specific" category.

Addressing industry concerns, within the (more complex) "specific" category the Drones Regulation provides for "standard scenarios" to limit the administrative burden in respect of operations that can be brought within those scenarios.

Operators of drones having mass greater than 250g, would be required to register. Drones above 900g mass would have to be registered individually. Electronic identification functionality is required for certain classes of drone; at least in part to allow identification of a transgressing drone and its operator, aiming to address a significant difficulty in legal enforcement.

The design of the drone having mass over 250g would be required to limit the operating altitude. "Geo-fencing" functionality would be required for certain classes of drone, to advise the operator of airspace restrictions and requirements.

It is worth noting that the Drones Regulation imposes obligations on manufacturers and distributors to ensure compliance with essential technical requirements, including altitude limitation, electronic identification and "geo-fencing" functionalities where applicable. That is in contrast to the regulatory approach adopted in the USA, which relies upon on drone operator compliance.

U-space

The key European regulatory stakeholders have acknowledged that the development of the drones based service industry will require a framework of services and procedures to allow access for large numbers of drones to low level airspace, of course including urban environments. That framework has become known as the "U-space".

In 2017 the SESAR ("Single European Sky ATM Research") Joint Undertaking published a "U-space blueprint" envisaging a staged development and deployment of the required elements starting with electronic identification, "geo-fencing" and "e-registration" (stage "U1") and then progressing to flight planning, approval and tracking (stage "U2"). Advanced services leading to full integration of large volumes of drones are envisaged to follow (stages "U3" and "U4"). U1 is envisaged for 2019.

Those developments will to some extent leverage existing aviation systems, but we can look forward to fascinating technical and regulatory challenges galore. Watch this (U) space …