On 9 November, the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure proposed new rules for commercial and hobbyist unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or drone operations. If implemented, the proposed rules will open the door to new UAS commercial opportunities in Europe’s largest economy.

Citing a lack of regulations to confront growing public safety concerns associated with the use and operation of privately owned UAS, Minister Alexander Dobrindt proposed the following key requirements:

  • All commercially-operated and hobbyist-operated UAS weighing more than 0.5 kg (1.1 lb) will require an individual license plate to identify the operator in the event of an accident.
  • For commercial flights the following new rules, if implemented, will apply: The regional States’ (Länder) authorities may authorize flights beyond visual line-of-sight in circumstances where it can be done safely. The Ministry has not yet provided further guidance on how the term “safe operation” should be interpreted. Flights beyond visual line-of-sight of the operator are currently prohibited in Germany. Moreover, new licensing requirements for commercial UAS operators will be established. Among other things, operators will need to pass a test demonstrating aeronautical skills and knowledge regarding aviation law. German law currently does not provide for training and licensing requirements. Under the proposed rule, the German Federal Authority of Aviation (Luftfahrtbundesamt) will be tasked with reviewing applications and issuing commercial UAS licenses.
  • For hobbyist operators the following new rules, if implemented, will apply: Flights above 100 m (328 ft) and beyond visual line-of-sight will be prohibited. Moreover, hobbyist-operated UAS must not be operated above prisons, military installations, crowds of people, scenes of accidents, disaster areas and other sensitive areas affecting national security. While these restrictions had already been in place, some additional “no flight zones” will be introduced, namely—industrial facilities, power plants and power transmission networks, federal roads, and railroads.

The proposed German rules are similar to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) regulation of UAS in the United States, but include some critical differences. Like Germany, the FAA has proposed and is currently working on finalizing rules for the operation of small UAS, including requirements for testing and licensing of commercial UAS operators.

The FAA is also currently working on developing registration requirements for UAS similar to Germany’s proposed license plate requirement. While not initially included in the FAA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Small UAS, a recent surge in news events involving careless operators misusing drones (see here and here) have prompted the Department of Transportation (DOT) to convene a task force to make recommendations for UAS registration requirements for commercial and hobbyist UAS operators. Those recommendations are expected to be announced in the next few days and, according to press reports, will likely require UAS weighing more than .5 lbs to be registered with the FAA and include marking and identification requirements on the UAS.

Unlike Germany’s proposed rules, the FAA’s proposed small UAS rule does not allow for beyond visual line-of-sight UAS operations. Restricting UAS operations to visual line-of-sight only will likely limit UAS commercial operations for UAS delivery services like Amazon’s proposed Prime Air Service, and other applications where the UAS would need to travel longer distances, such as powerline inspections or precision agriculture operations over large plots of land.

The proposed German rules still need to be incorporated into the German regulations before the rules take effect. Depending on the concrete scope of the proposed new rules, the regulation may require consent by the German Federal Council (Bundesrat) which represents the regional States. Similar to the rulemaking process in the United States, the Federal Ministry of Transport will likely invite stakeholders to comment on the draft rules. This is an important opportunity for interested parties to analyze the proposed new law and to engage with the German regulator.