Technology for drones is maturing and the market for civil drones is evolving fast. A drone is a small unmanned aircraft or a remotely piloted aircraft. The term "civil drones" is used to cover those remotely piloted aircraft that are used for civil purposes such as delivering mail or inspecting an oil platform out at sea. According to the European Parliament, research suggests that the rapidly-developing drone sector will create more than 150,000 new jobs by 2050 and that the industry could represent 10% of the EU's aviation market (about €15 billion a year) in 10 years. Therefore, operational and technical rules need to be further developed in order to ensure that civil drones can fly like regular air traffic and be integrated among normally piloted aircraft in non-segregated airspace without affecting the safety and the operation of the whole aviation system.
On 26 June 2018, the European Council adopted new aviation safety rules, which include a revised mandate for the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the first ever EU-wide rules for civil drones. The regulation on EU civil aviation safety covers all key areas of aviation including airworthiness, aircrew, aerodromes, air operations and the provision of air navigation services. It also sets out a division of tasks between the EU and national authorities.
New rules on drones
Currently, EASA is responsible for drones over 150kg within the EU. Drones lighter than 150kg fall under the jurisdiction of national authorities, such as the Irish Aviation Authority in Ireland. Therefore, manufacturers and operators of smaller and lighter drones are subject to different and fragmented national safety rules across the EU. National legislation does not benefit from mutual recognition and does not allow for EU wide activities, either to produce or to operate drones. This means that key safeguards are not being applied in a coherent way and it has led to inconsistent standards across the different Member States.
The regulation will enable drones of all sizes to fly safely in EU airspace and will bring legal certainty for this rapidly expanding industry. The new rules will apply to all drone parts, including engines, propellers and non-installed equipment, to ensure that operators and manufacturers respect safety, privacy, personal data and the environment. There will also be rules on noise and emissions generated by drones, as is the case for any other aircraft. Higher-risk drone operations will require certification, while drones presenting the lowest risk will simply need to conform to normal EU market surveillance legislation.
Drone operators must be registered if they operate drones which can transfer more than 80 joules of kinetic energy upon impact with a person. This threshold may be amended in the future by means of delegated acts to take account of developments in this area.
Drones will need to be designed so that they can be operated without putting people at risk. Based on risk related to, for example, the weight of the drone or area of operation, the drone may need additional features. These features might include automated landing or collision avoidance systems in instances where the operator loses contact with the drone.
Extension of EASA’s mandate
The regulation extends EASA's mandate to safety-related aspects of security, such as cyber security, and to the protection of the environment. It establishes a framework for the pooling and sharing of aviation inspectors and other specialists to support Member States in certification and oversight tasks. It will also create a new support mechanism for Member States that will include technical assistance for certification, oversight and enforcement tasks.
In addition, the text provides new rules for the safe provision of ground-handling services and closes a number of other safety gaps.
Modernising aviation safety rules
Supplementary to laying down EU wide rules for drones, the changes update the EU safety legislation for the aviation sector to maintain the EU’s high level of aviation safety, while ensuring that the rules are fit for purpose, more proportionate and risk-based to handle the expected increase in air traffic in the coming decades.
Further changes boost cooperation between the EASA and national authorities when assessing risks in regard to flights over conflict zones. The changes also mandate that aircraft shall be equipped with the necessary safety-related equipment and instruments for the purpose of downloading data from flight recorders in real time when an aircraft is in distress, to speed up emergency response.
The European Council’s vote concludes the legislative procedure at first reading. The European Parliament voted in favour of the regulation on 12 June 2018. The regulation will be signed by both institutions and published in the EU Official Journal by the end of July. It will enter into force 20 days after publication.
As civil aviation evolves towards more automation, drone technology will be crucial for the competitiveness of the EU aerospace industry as a whole. Establishing harmonised regulations for commercial drones is likely to have a big impact on this growing market.
The new EU-wide measures will bring legal certainty for an industry that includes a large number of small and medium-size enterprises, and start-ups. Drone operators need to be aware of all the rules that apply to them and must be able to operate a drone safely, without putting people or other airspace users at risk.