Drone flying in the EU has always been rather limited because the regulations differed heavily from country to country. Some member states even changed their aviation rules 3 times a day, which was extremely frustrating for all drone enthusiasts but more importantly, this chaotic situation also stalled drone operation as a whole in the EU for many years.
But those days are gone for good! The EU authorities realized a while ago they needed to standardise drone legislation to allow for all sorts of smart solutions to perform at their best. And thus, after a period of international consultation, all EU members agreed to a new set of rules and regulations that have been valid since January 1st 2021 and replaced each EU state’s existing laws and apply to all drone operations. Yes, you read that correctly, all 28 member states (excluding the UK, nothing has been confirmed there) as well as Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Norway just became easily accessible for the drone operation our Smart Construction market specifically needs!
The new framework is relatively easy to read and apply. It’s mainly based on a risk-oriented approach, classifying drone operation into 3 separate categories: “Open”, “Specific” and “Certified”. Let me walk you through the highlights of the new UAS (‘Unmanned Aerial System’, the EU prefers this name over drone) regulations and save you lots of time, frustration and aerially inspired headaches in 2021…
All Unmanned Aerial Systems will eventually need to carry the CX-mark, but the majority of UAS equipment today is non-CE-approved. The good news? The EU created the “Limited Open Category” to cover a transition period that went into effect on 01/01/2021 and is basically a two-year transition period for all equipment to get the CX-mark by 2023.
From 01/01/21 onwards, all UAS owners have been required to register themselves at their own national CAA (‘Civil Aviation Authority’) to obtain their UAS Operator ID. In Belgium, for example, you would have to register yourself at DGLV, the local drone portal. Once again, good news! You only need to register yourself as a UAS operator once, even if you own multiple drones. The registration number your national CAA will grant you opens the entire EU sky for you. You just need to stick your unique registration number on all your UAS and you’re good to go or should we say fly.
Before going a bit deeper into the differences between the 3 separate categories (Open, Specific and Certified), let’s not forget about insurance (special drone insurance was a specific requirement for the UK market in any case). On the bright side, your standard civil liability policy will probably cover most recreational operations. UAS above 20kg will definitely need some extra coverage but just check with your insurer before registering yourself.
The first, and certainly the most important one for our customers, is called the “Open Category”, which is then subdivided into subcategories according to the weight of the UAS (roughly speaking from under 250gr to a good 25kg). The Open Category features as a giant receptacle for all low-risk operation, within visual line of sight (‘VLOS’ in short) and not over people.
As an exception to the rule, UAS under 250gr is still allowed to fly above non-related people. No training is required whatsoever and no minimum age is set. However, it is recommended that you at least read the factory manual of your device and look at the free online training for ≤ 250gr operators.
UAS under 900gr are not allowed to fly over non-related people anymore, operators need to be older than 14 years and they do need to take the free online training and have to write a relatively easy online exam. In addition to that, every operator should at least know the ins and outs of the factory manual of their UAS. The certificate you receive after passing the online exam will remain valid for a period of 5 years.
During the transition period, as a rule, UAS under 2kg can basically fly up to 50 meters above people, which is fairly close to infrastructure and machinery so right up our alley. Our preferred drone, the DJI Phantom 4 RTK, only weighs 1391 grams and fits right in! On the other hand, keep in mind that UAS above 2kg needs to maintain a 150-meter distance from industrial, residential, commercial and recreational areas. In terms of UAS weight, less is definitely more!
To make it really easy if it’s not covered by the “Open Category”, your operation will undoubtedly fit into the “Specific Category”. Let’s conveniently skip the third “Certified Category” as the official outline is still very much undefined. This out of ordinary category will only be used to lodge very high risk operation, such as the transportation of people.
Typical characteristics of the “Specific Category” are a somewhat higher level of risk than operations residing in the open category, flying higher than 120m AGL (‘Above Ground Level’), beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and above people, including activities such as dropping goods.
All “Specific Category” operations with fairly standard scenarios will not require any legal authorization, only some form of communication with the local authorities. This basically boils down to registering yourself and your operation on any EU drone portal, such as DGLV in Belgium (mobilit.belgium.be). DGLV will confirm receipt and this declaration is literally all you need to start your operation… anywhere. Your Belgian declaration is valid in all EU member states. Before flying into another country, simply forward a copy of your declaration and the confirmation of receipt from DGLV to the civil aviation authority of that country. No hassle, quick and easy.
Operations Risk Assessment
More complex operations will require an “Operations Risk Assessment” and an authorization from DGLV. The risk analysis that will need to be performed will have to be in line with the method that was specifically developed by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) as an acceptable means of compliance. Just consult the EASA publications for more details on this matter, should you ever need it.
And believe it or not, this is all you need to know to finally start boosting your drone-assisted business in the EU from January 1st onwards! Some categories will undoubtedly need to be fine-tuned in the next two years and the local interpretation in the UK still needs to be confirmed, but meanwhile, let’s welcome the borderless transition period to the fullest and fly that EU sky!