Posted on 21/Sep/2015
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While the European Parliament is due to adopt a report outlining legislation plans for civil use of drones, the European Aviation Safety Agency is looking to alleviate the bureaucratic burden for the operators.

International civil aviation has been built on the basis of the Chicago Convention (1944) among whose cornerstones one may notice Article 31 (all aircraft need a certificate of airworthiness (CofA) issued by the aviation authority) and Article 32 (each pilot needs a valid licence).

These two dogmas stood for decades, but today the fact is that we have thousands of small drones flying around without CofA and piloted by skilled remote pilots, who however do not hold a formal licence issued by the authority.

This situation is not illegal. On the contrary, several States in the world have promulgated rules which allow to authorise the operator (e.g. if the drone is less than 25 kg) to carry out commercial specialised operations (alias aerial work) in the absence of formal CofA and pilot licence. This is the case for France, Germany, Italy, UK and several other States around the world.

In the European Union (EU) civil drones above 150 kg are subject to current EASA rules and therefore to an impressive amount of paperwork: type certification of the design; individual certificate of airworthiness (CofA) for each produced drone; pilot licence and medical certificate; licence of certifying staff for maintenance; approval of organisations involved in design, in production, in maintenance, in operations and in training of licensed professions; approval of major changes by EASA and few more.

The “Riga declaration” signed by the political EU authorities at the maximum level last March, envisaged the possibility of extending the mandate of EASA to drones of any mass, but based on “proportionate” rules.

It is clear in fact that a small drone of few kilos, operated at few metres above the ground in the countryside has little possibility of causing a catastrophe. On the other side is equally clear that the terrific amount of paperwork summarised above would be unbearable for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

But what does “proportionality” means? Sometimes I say, in non-bureaucratic but expressive terms, that proportionality means: “neither kill humans … nor SMEs”.

So the major aviation safety regulators around the world, in 2015 began to think seriously whether the historical dogmas, and associated long list of official papers issued by the aviation authorities, should be maintained or not for small unmanned aircraft.

In February the USA Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to allow drones of less than 25 kg to fly without CofA. In March, immediately after the Riga Declaration” EASA published a “Concept of Operations”, proposing three categories:

– “open” (low risk for society and no official papers issued by the aviation authority);

– “specific” (medium risk and only one mandatory paper from the authority: the operational authorisation or operator certificate);

– “certified” (high risk and the long list of certificates and approvals normally required for commercial aviation).

These ideas seem to be supported by the TRAN Committee of the European Parliament which has drafted a motion to urge the Commission to propose EU legislation for drones, including small ones, of course based on said principle of “proportionality”.

….but: do the citizens agree? Now they have the opportunity to express their opinions, since anyone can comment on the Advanced EASA Notice of Proposed Amendment (NPA) 2015-10[1], open for comments until 25 September, and which indeed develops more detailed proposals for the three categories, in preparation of the future EU legislation on the matter.

I would therefore urge all involved stakeholders to consult this A-NPA and to possibly comment. This A-NPA could lead to a proposal to amend the Basic EASA Regulation (EU 216/2008) and announces that, subsequently, EASA will propose implementing rules, while standard making bodies (e.g. EUROCAE) will develop industry standards.

The A-NPA states that one issue is the “huge number of drones: the production rate of small drones is simply unprecedented in aviation. In 2014, the two main manufacturers of small drones have produced around 1 million drones and they plan to produce the double in 2015. Such numbers go beyond the current NAA or Agency certification capacity”.

True. But hence to protect society we need more resources to oversee this emerging segment of industry. It is very unlikely that States will assign additional resources to aviation authorities to cope with drones; but additional resources could be provided by the market, through “qualified entities” (QEs), if only industry and operators were allowed to contract them.

Today Art, 13 of the Basic Regulation allows QEs to be contracted only by authorities. I guess it should be amended to allow QEs, once accredited by the authority, to stay on the market and support collective safety though independent assessments.

The most controversial point may be the “open” category, subject to no formal approval, but subject to a DG-GROW Directive on the safety of products, addressing manufacturers, but also importers of e.g. Chinese products.

The Directive would contain not only essential requirements, but also the obligation for the vendor to clearly inform buyers on the operational limitations (e.g. not above 50 m of height). An operator going beyond such limitations would be illegal and enforcement mainly delegated to police and not to the aviation authority.

This approach is not necessarily unsafe, providing the thresholds of the category are wisely set and the operational limitations as well. And especially if insurers and QEs would de facto impose market rules, beyond legal obligations. But it is definitely a very novel approach for the aviation community: I am sure that it will attract a lot of comments.




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