This is the final article in our five part series covering UK and EU drone regulation. You can read Part 1 (introduction) here, Part 2 (UK regulation) here, Part 3 (EU regulation introduction) here and Part 4 (EU manufacturing) here.
Open category – operational requirements
Open category drone operations – the ones which prevent the lowest risk (see Part 3) – do not need authorisation. These operations must meet certain criteria, including that the drone:
- is kept a safe distance from people
- is in visual line of sight (VLOS) operation, which requires continuous unaided visual contact, except when the drone is flying in follow-me mode
- does not fly higher than 120m above the ground
- does not carry dangerous goods (such as explosives and flammable, toxic, infectious, radioactive or corrosive substances) or drop any material
- is not flown over assemblies of people (defined as gatherings where persons are unable to move away due to the density of people).
Open category – responsibilities of the operator and pilot
The drone operator has a number of responsibilities, including ensuring that the pilot has the appropriate level of competency and that the drone's geo-awareness system has been updated.
The pilot must, for example, have the appropriate proof of competency for a drone weighing over 250g, check it is safe to fly and obtain up to date information about geographical non-fly zones.
Pilots must maintain control and not fly the drone under the influence of drugs or alcohol or when unfit (eg due to fatigue). If the operation poses a risk to other aircraft, people, animals, the environment or property, the pilot must discontinue the flight.
Open category – drone flight categories
Different flying rules apply to different types of drone, which depend on, for example, its weight. There are three subcategories of open operations, A1, A2 and A3, which dictate where a drone can be flown relative to people.
Open Subcategory A1
The lightest category of drones, weighing less than 250g (eg class C0), may be flown over 'uninvolved persons'. An uninvolved person is generally anyone apart from the pilot.
In contrast, the pilot of a class C1 drone (eg weighing 250g-900g) must have a reasonable expectation that it will not be flown over any uninvolved persons and if that happens unexpectedly they must take steps to minimise this.
To fly a C1 drone, the pilot must also have successfully completed an online training course provided by the relevant aviation authority. The course will cover topics such as air safety and regulation, human performance limitations, privacy, data protection, security and insurance.
Drones in classes C0 and C1 must be flown in VLOS unless they are in follow-me mode, in which case they must be flown within 50m of the pilot. The pilot must never fly them above assemblies of people.
Open subcategory A2
Pilots of drones in class C2 (up to 4kg) have to take even more precautions. Such drones must not be flown over any uninvolved persons and, in general, must stay at a horizontal distance of 30m away from them. Pilots must have practiced away from people and hold a certificate having passed an even more rigorous test assessing knowledge of meteorology, flight performance and mitigating ground risk
Open subcategory A3
Class C2, C3 and C4 drones (ie up to 25kg) can be flown by a pilot who, for example, has passed an online test, if they reasonably expect that no uninvolved persons will be endangered and the operation is at least 150m from any residential, commercial or recreational areas.
Specific category drone operations
If one of the criteria for open category operations is not met, the operation will fall into the specific category. To fly the drone, the operator will need to provide an operational risk assessment and obtain an authorisation from the competent aviation authority in the member state where the drone is registered.
The competent authority will only grant an authorisation if it concludes that, in light of the operator's risk assessment, competence of the personnel and technical features of the drone, the measures are adequate to keep the operation safe in view of the identified ground and air risks.
Pilots need to comply with competency requirements, including emergency procedures, flight planning, managing aeronautical communications, the flight path and automation, leadership, teamwork, problem-solving and decision making.
Certified category of drone operations
The biggest or most potentially dangerous types of drone must be 'certified'. These are ones which for example:
- have a characteristic dimension of over 3m and are designed to be operated over assemblies of people
- are designed for transporting people, or
- are designed for transporting dangerous goods which require the drone to be very robust to manage the risks for third parties in case of an accident.
Unsurprisingly, drones in the certified category are subject to laws governing aircraft design and operations and operators and pilots need to be certified.
As we have seen, the UK has been fairly quick to put in place sensible regulations to try to regulate the use of drones. This should help limit the risks of an accident. The new EU rules are very detailed and should not only help increase safety, but lead to consistency for manufacturers and users alike. However, the risk of a sophisticated malicious attack using drones is unlikely to be avoided merely by regulation.