In Europe several countries already promulgated rules on civil drones. As the number of operators is expected to increase by 10 times in the next five years the EU is now focusing on developing a common policy.
2015 could be the year of drones in non-military aviation, marked by the ICAO Manual, the EU Riga Declaration and the American Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
In February the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) released the first edition of the “Manual” (Doc 10019) on the international use of drones for civil applications. The basic ideas are that the drone should be airworthy (no wonder), but also that the person flying it from the ground is a pilot: “remote pilot”, but still executing the tasks and be accountable as a pilot.
Furthermore, and this is quite new in the ICAO literature, a chapter in the Manual is devoted to the “operator”, i.e. the entity taking responsibility for the entire cycle of operations: maintenance, qualification of the remote pilot, procedures, authorisations, insurance, privacy and data protection, etc.
In the EU several Member States (MS) already promulgated rules on civil drones, which, below 150 kg, are still a national responsibility. The most important common denominator across all these rules is indeed the central role of the operator: the operator has to apply to the civil aviation authority to obtain permits to fly, even for commercial purposes.
Consequently the holder of the authorisation has privileges (i.e. flying within certain limitations) and responsibilities (e.g. liability).
On 6 March the EU aviation leaders gathered in Riga, invited by the Latvian Presidency, and delivered a declaration which states that rules are “necessary now” and that the operator of a drone is responsible for its use: “When a drone service is delivered, the authorities should be able to act and hold the operator accountable”.
The approach based on regulating the responsibilities and privileges of the operator, already adopted by several MS, is hence expected to become a central pillar of the EU policy for civil drones.
In the MS there are already around 3,000 civil operators of drones legally authorised to fly. This number may increase by 10 times in the next five years, not only based on market forces and technology, but also on clear and proportionate rules on the internal market, without which no business case is credible, while insurers would be very hesitant.
But, after the Second World War, the USA have been the leaders guiding the development of civil aviation around the globe. Is this still true for the drones? On the technology side, no doubts, the Americans have excellent products, which represent a fierce competition to EU manufacturers. But on the regulatory framework, which is also a key enabler for the internal market, is the FAA leading the world? I believe not.
The USA in fact, were the first in the world to introduce (1926) the idea of a “type approval” for the design of an aircraft model, which is then industrially manufactured in several individuals.
This idea proved effective and contributed to make traditional commercial aviation as safe as we know it today. But a type approval requires a lot of technical effort and documents to be submitted to the aviation authority. Is it thinkable for drones of few kg which anyone can buy through the web? Possibly not.
And in fact, through section 333 of the reauthorization act of 2012, the USA legislator obliged the FAA to grant “exceptions” for small unmanned aircraft, including their possible commercial use.
The approach is hence diverging across the Atlantic: the FAA has been extremely cautious, since, due to the novelty of drones, they were not sure about the technical approach to be followed.
Their delay has forced the political authorities to act and presently the FAA is granting case-by-case “exceptions”, without any general rule yet promulgated. Again no wonder: this is since centuries the approach of the “common law” still greatly influencing the American culture.
In the EU, on the contrary, we are heavily biased by the Illuminist top-down approach and therefore we started from the operator and its responsibilities and privileges, even if technical standards were not yet mature…. and we are ahead of the USA for the regulation of civil drones.
Unable to further resist the political pressures, the FAA on last 23 February has published a NPRM on “small UAS” to allow routine use of certain small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the USA aviation system, while maintaining flexibility to accommodate future technological innovations.
The FAA proposal offers safety rules for small UAS (under 55 pounds, which around 25 kg) conducting non-recreational operations (commercial or non-commercial, but always professional). The rule would limit flights to daylight and visual-line-of-sight operations (VLOS).
It also addresses height restrictions, operator certification, optional use of a visual observer, aircraft registration and marking, and operational limits.
This proposed rule is for some aspects similar to the European approach, since it finally accepts that for small UAS formal airworthiness certification may not be necessary, while operations could be limited to VLOS in day light conditions, below 150 meters of altitude and below a given speed.
But still it uses the term “operator” and the term “pilot” as equivalent, while in Europe the distinction is clear and the former is responsible not only for safety, but also for security, liability, insurance, privacy and data protection.
Anyway the FAA NPRM is a good step in the right direction: “rules now, even if technology is not standardised”. But still the semantics and the cultural approach (i.e. no sufficient attention to the “organisations”) are not fully aligned with ICAO and EU.
At worldwide level the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS) are also applying the ICAO and EU approach and presently developing a set of requirements (JARUS-ORG) for the organisations, including operators, involved in civil operations of drones.
In conclusion the expansion of the civil market for drones is unavoidable and will also bring benefits to society in terms of new services and new jobs.
In this context ICAO, JARUS and Europe are going towards a comprehensive regulatory framework whose central pillar is the operator and they have jointly the possibility of influencing the rest of the world. The FAA is, at least for moment lagging a little bit behind.