As part of its ambitious aviation strategy, the European Commission has proposed harmonising European drone rules. In June 2017 the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research Joint Undertaking unveiled U-Space – a blueprint on the use of drones in low-level airspace.

U-Space will cover altitudes of up to 150 metres (m) and pave the way for denser traffic of automated drone operations over longer distances, including over cities. It will facilitate any kind of drone mission, including:

  • infrastructure inspections;
  • precision agriculture;
  • search and rescue;
  • delivery of goods; and
  • urban air mobility.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is seeing to it that U-Space has rules that ensure the safe integration of drones into the airspace.

In May 2017 EASA published the Notice of Proposed Amendment (NPA) 2017-05, which was prepared in consultation with EASA member states and the aviation industry. The proposal builds on Advance-NPA, a technical opinion and prototype regulation. The idea is to create effective safety rules that are proportionate to the risk.

The EASA proposal relates to two categories of operation:

  • In an open (low-risk) operation, authorisation from national authorities is unnecessary. To fall within the open category, a drone:
    • must weigh less than 25 kilograms;
    • cannot fly higher than 120m; and
    • must remain within the visual line of sight of the remote pilot.

The open category is divided into further sub-categories based on a mix of technical, operational and pilot competence requirements.

  • As soon as the operation is beyond the limits of the open category, the rules of the specific (medium-risk) category apply. National aviation authorities must be made aware of operations in this category. A specific operation has an approval attached to it, based on either a risk assessment performed by the operator or a pre-approved standard scenario (eg, infrastructure inspections).

EASA is also considering regulating a third category (the certified category), which is associated with complex drone operations.

While the existing proposal does not yet cover the certified category, it is breaking new ground in that it combines aviation and product legislation. The product standards for open-category consumer drones will be implemented using CE product legislation. The sub-categories of the open category are viewed as an essential enabler for this.

EASA further envisages electronic registration of operators and their drones, unless the drones are lighter than 250 grams. Certain drones will require electronic identification and geo-fencing (a system that ensures that drones do not enter prohibited airspace). Electronic identification will allow authorities to identify a drone flying and link it to information stored in the registry. The identification supports safety and security requirements, as well as law-enforcement procedures. Registration, electronic identification and geo-fencing will be key components in the implementation of U-Space.

The EASA proposal makes no distinction between commercial and non-commercial use of drones.

The proposal is a public consultation document on which all European citizens can pass comment. The consultation period runs until September 15 2017. Given the wide-ranging effects of the emerging drone framework, all stakeholders are advised to ensure that their voices are heard. EASA is expected to submit a final draft to the European Commission at the end of 2017, which will take into account the feedback on the proposal.

This article was first published by the International Law Office, a premium online legal update service for major companies and law firms worldwide. Register for a free subscription.

For further information on this topic please contact Andreas Fankhauser at Baumgartner Mächler by telephone (+41 44 215 4477) or email (afa@bmlaw.ch). The Baumgartner Mächler website can be accessed at www.bmlaw.ch.