Drone Regulations Go into Effect in the European Union

As from December 31, 2020, national rules in EU Member States will be replaced by a common EU regulation. The transitional period will end on January 1, 2023.
Susan Fourtané
Fleet of remote controlled civil dronesMaxiphoto/iStock 

As from December 31, 2020, national rules in European Union Member States will be replaced by a common EU regulation. This basically means that once a drone pilot has received a valid authorization from their state of registry, they will be allowed to freely circulate within the European Union.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic the European Commission has decided to postpone the implementation on the rules and procedures of the operating UAS, allowing the current national drone operating rules to apply for a further six months, with the new drone rules starting on December 31, 2020. 

How society will see the drone community in the future will depend on how drone pilots -- who are responsible for drone flights-- will respond to rules and regulations, and how they will respect them. 

The civil drone strategy developed by the European Commission aims to support the progressive development of the unmanned aircraft market in Europe. It will also be addressing common concerns about safety, security, privacy, liability, and general public acceptance.

New common drone rules and regulations in the European Union starting December 31, 2020

According to the European Resource for Civil Drone Operators, as from December 31, 2020, national rules in EU Member States will be replaced by a common EU drone regulation. This basically means that once a drone pilot has received a valid authorization from their state of registry, they will be allowed to freely circulate within the European Union. 

The new EU regulations remove the difference between commercial and non-commercial drone operations, adding three main categories which include other sub-categories.  

The European regulatory framework is based on the following principles:

Drone rules EU: A risk-based and proportionate approach through three main categories

Remote controlled commercial drone delivering goods in the countryside, Source: Maxiphoto, iStock 

The new framework will introduce three main categories of operations according to the level of risks involved: Open, Specific, and Certified. Each of these categories will respond to a different regulatory approach as follows:

  • Open: Low-risk operations are included in this category. They will not require any authorization. However, they will be subject to strict operational limitations. The Open category is divided into three sub-categories which respond to a variety of training required as well as examinations. There are also requirements depending on the type of aircraft that you will be piloting

  • Specific: This category includes medium risk operations. The Specific category is for those operations that present a greater risk than that of the Open category. To obtain certification in this category, operators will have to require authorization from the national aviation authority on the basis of a standardized risk assessment or on a specific scenario. This category will also require to obtain certain certification

  • Certified: Cases of high-risk operations are going to be included in this category. The Certified category includes cases that fall outside of the norm. Examples that fall into this category include carrying dangerous goods in the aircraft, or even carrying a human passenger in the unmanned vehicle. The Certified category is for operations that present similar risks in that of manned aviation. Therefore, all classical aviation rules will apply as well as specific advanced certification

Drone rules EU: A sharing of responsibilities between the EU and the Member States  

Flying a personal drone with camera, Source: ibrahimaslann, iStock 

According to the European Resource for Civil Drone Operators, in order to bring the necessary flexibility, EU Member States will have to define zones where they wish to restrict the access of certain portions of their airspace or, on the contrary, relax the conditions there.

By doing so, national specifications will be addressed at the most appropriate level. All registrations and authorizations are also going to be implemented at national level on the basis of common rules.

Also, by the end of the year, the European Commission will adopt two regulations covering unmanned aircraft operations in the Open and Specific categories. The first regulation is going to define rules and procedures for the operation of unmanned aircraft. The second one, is going to define the technical specifications applicable to those drones which are authorized to be operated under the Open category.

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Flying a drone in the EU 

If you fly or are planning on flying a drone in the EU there are some fundamental things that first you need to know in order to avoid problems for yourself or your business, and also to avoid accidents.

According to the European Union's drone rules, the use of drones for recreational purposes is allowed in most of European countries without specific authorization from aviation authorities. By no means, though, this means you can fly your drone without any restrictions; there are some essential rules that everyone flying a recreational drone must acknowledge and follow.

In many European countries, the use of drones as part of a business activity is allowed as long as you respect some very strict conditions. Failure to comply with EU drone rules may result in significant financial and legal consequences.

That said, flying a drone for a business activity such as the delivery of products or food delivery is allowed in many European nations. Depending on your category, you may need an authorization or licence from the corresponding National Aviation Authority before you can start planning any drone operation. 

In addition, data and privacy protection may play a paramount role since you must comply with the related European rules. In order to avoid any sort of trouble, you must inform yourself about the rules that apply to your category and how you need to register the drone flying activities related to your business. 

  • Fly respectfully and consider privacy 

  • Fly safely and follow the flight safety rules 

  • Fly responsibly and be insured 

A drone user in the European Union should always be aware of the following rules:  

  • A significant number of National Aviation Authorities have established new aviation safety legislations regulating the use of drones in their national airspace. As a drone operator, you are obliged by the law to respect the corresponding safety and operational rules in order not to interfere with the aviation safety, endanger individuals, or cause damage to property 

  • In Europe, every citizen enjoys a fundamental right to privacy and to the protection of their personal data. As a professional drone operator, you must always respect these rights and strictly comply with the applicable privacy and data protection legislations 

  • In the event of an accident, the pilot, owner, or operator is the person responsible for the drone. This person has to compensate for the damage they have caused. Thus, European aviation law requires professional drone operators to be insured. As a professional drone operator, you should be aware of the applicable insurance and liability requirements, and you should make sure that you are adequately insured for your drone's flight. If you do not comply, you may suffer financial and legal consequences 

In many EU Member States, drones are sold with a leaflet which includes the main rules the drone user needs to follow. The common regulatory aviation framework in the European Union has now fully come into place. However, there will be a transitional period from December 31 until January 2023 to switch from the national regulations to the new common drone EU regulations. 

Brexit and the EU drones law: How Brexit affects the new EU drone regulations

Brexit map
The new EU drones law will become applicable in The U.K. on December 31, 2020, Source: Denys, iStock

It is inevitable that following the decision of The U.K. to exit from the EU will have an effect in this new EU drone regulations as well as any future regulations.

During the transition period, the EU law will continue to apply, and The U.K. and its aviation sector will continue to participate in the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) system while the future UK-EU relationship on aviation is determined. According to the Civil Aviation Authority:

"During the transition period, The U.K. continues to be party to the EU Air Services Regulation and mutual recognition provisions established under the EASA Basic Regulation. Existing agreements between the EU and third countries, such as those relating to air connectivity and aviation safety, will continue to include The U.K.. As a result, businesses and individuals operating [drones] in the UK should see no change to existing conditions during the transition period."

The European drone regulations will start in The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on December 31st, 2020.

This will remove the current Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO). At the same time, the EU drone regulations will potentially unlock more flying opportunities for more people.

One of the biggest changes with the new EU regulations will be the removal of the distinction between commercial and non-commercial drone operations. Yet, PfCO holders should not be concerned about this. They will still possess an advantage as qualified remote pilots. 

From December 31, 2020, PfCO holders can continue operations under the terms of their current permissions. Conversely, upon renewal, these permissions will change to an Operational Authorization which will replace the Permission for Commercial Operations. 

The future of the relationship between The U.K. and the EU on aviation safety will be negotiated during the transition period. According to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), "as part of the Brexit Treaty, The U.K. is required by international law to implement any elements of EU regulation that come into force and become applicable within the [Brexit] transition period [to December 31, 2020]. Therefore, the new drones laws will become applicable within The U.K. on Thursday, December 31, 2020." 

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