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, 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.
Picture credits: dronesurvivalguide.org
After the Riga Declaration and the report of the TRAN Committee of the European Parliament the question is no longer “if” drones will proliferate in the airspace, but “how” we should regulate the several facets of this new phenomenon.
Around 15 years ago the majority of experts argued that the “invasion” of airspace by drones would have started at altitudes normally populated by traditional aircrafts (e.g. so called MALE around 20,000 feet and HALE between 30,000 and 50,000 feet), thus heavily interfering with traditional jet-liners. Reality has decided to go on a different way.
Today, we see thousand of little drones of very few kilos flying well below 500 ft, and often well below 100 ft, under the command of persons who are sometimes totally new to aviation and have no idea of airspace.
At 100 ft, outside the departure and landing path, there is not much aviation activity except for few emergency services. On the contrary, flying so low is extremely dangerous for manned aviation due to the presence of buildings, trees, chimneys, cranes, cables and other objects.
At the other extreme, above flight level (FL) 600 (= 60,000 feet, alias around 20 km), airspace has been traditionally underused due to material as well as economic obstacles in operating “normal” aircrafts at such altitudes; but now several companies are envisaging a growing number of stratospheric balloons, suborbital commercial rocket propelled aircraft as well as solar powered drones, with several metres of wing span, loitering there for weeks and acting as a communication relay.
ICAO still seems concentrated on commercial freight air transport by unmanned aircraft, in the range of altitudes commonly used by traditional jet-liners. In the EU the institutions are becoming increasingly aware that instead the priority is to regulate the safety, security, privacy and insurance of the “new comers” below 500 ft and above FL 600.
The involved operators are in fact entities that very often have no previous aviation experience (a young man treating the drone as a “toy” as well as companies like Google, with more experience in telecommunications and computers than flying aircraft). The challenge to the aviation authorities is thus enormous.
The five principles of the Riga Declaration adopted in March this year highlighted that for this new segment of aviation rules have to be “proportionate” (i.e. it is neither thinkable nor necessary that a surveyor using professionally a small drone should be submerged by the amount of regulatory paperwork that we see in a commercial airline) but they should be developed “now”, since the airspace is already “invaded” by drones and regulators are lagging behind technology.
Furthermore key elements are the public acceptance (which beyond safety, includes at least privacy and security) and the central role of the “operator”, which is not the remote pilot, but the company employing the pilot.
The abovementioned points are emphasized in the draft report of the TRAN Committee of the European Parliament (EP) on the matter, chaired by Jacqueline Foster.
Such a report reminded that today the EU is the world leader for the use of small drones, which highlights the necessity to use the so-called “operation centric” approach (i.e. in order to maintain safety the focus is on the operator, i.e. its organisation and its ability to respect some limitations, not on the reliability of the technical system as in the traditional aviation approach).
The EP welcomes the development of sports and recreational RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) but calls for a clear, globally harmonised and proportionate regulatory framework in the EU (i.e. below 150 kg).
The Parliament also considers that rules at EU and national level should clearly indicate the provisions applicable to RPAS in relation to the internal market and international commerce (production, sale, purchase, trade and use of RPAS); this means that in what EASA calls the “open” category, there could be no aviation administrative processes, but obligations for the vendors to inform customers on the operational limitations applicable to their drone.
This is in itself a major revolution in the regulatory approach to aviation.
Furthermore the EP believes also that privacy, data protection and any other applicable law, such as criminal, intellectual property, aviation and environmental law, should be specified in a notice for purchasers.
The hard point is now removing the limit of 150 kg for the EASA competence. It is clear that just lowering it to e.g. 30 kg would be ridiculous, since 95% of current operations employ drones of less than 20 kg.
States should therefore make a big step backwards on behalf of the internal market and this is the next major challenge for the EU citizens to overcome. The support obtained so far by the Commission and by the EP is however encouraging.