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Unmanned Aircraft Regulations Taking Shape

With the increasing prospects of drone use in conjunction with helicopter operations, Europe weighs their oversight.

With growth in the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) market, the sector is experimenting with regulations.

The global civil UAS fleet was estimated at 1 million in 2015; 300,000 were sold that year. Analysts see the market reaching $14.9 billion by 2020, from $10.1 billion in 2015.

After a series of incidents, concerns are arising within the manned aircraft community. At the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Symposium 2015, the European Cockpit Assn. raised concerns about UAS threats to helicopters, both of which use the same airspace below 500 ft. In Germany alone, the association (which says it represents 38,000 pilots in Europe) estimates that there are more than 100,000 helicopter air medical missions leading to 500,000 operations below 500 ft. Because UASs are small and difficult to locate, the association notes that locating one 20 m away corresponds to a notice of 0.3 sec at helicopter cruising speed.

The group said it also considers insufficient the current risk mitigation, which is often based on weight even below 1.5 kg, which is considered a “neglible risk.” It calculates that a kinetic energy of a 1.28 kg DJI UAS corresponds to eight pistol bullets fired. As incidents already have happened with UASs, perturbing operations of firefighters or emergency helicopters, the association calls for research about the effects of a collision, as well as more safety and regulatory measures.

EASA in May created a task force to study the risk of collision between drones and manned aircraft. The report was expected last month.

On Aug. 22, the European agency released a prototype regulation on unmanned aircraft operations. “We call it prototype because we don’t have a legal power to publish rules on small aircraft,” said Yves Morier, principal advisor to the certification director on new technologies. Indeed, EASA’s competencies are limited to drones weighing more than 150 kg. After a period for comments, a regulatory evolution should be proposed by the end of this year. But a document modifying EASA’s competencies should be submitted next year to the European Parliament and the Council; it could be approved as soon as June 2017 and would give EASA authority to work on small drones. In that case, a European unified regulation could be adopted within 2 to 3 yr after a discussion with the member states. “We tried to publish rules that ensure safety while ensuring the development of the activities,” said Morier.

The prototype regulation introduces two main categories: open and specific. The open category, considering the risks involved, wouldn’t require a prior authorization for drone operations as long as forbidden or restricted zones are respected. It would compensate for them with strict limitations. Drones should weigh less than 25 kg (55 lb), be operated in visual line of sight and under 150 m (500 ft) agl. Four subcategories, based on the complexity of the drone (from A0 to A3), introduce further requirements: electronic identification and geofencing (an automatic function to limit access to certain airspace) as mandatory for A2 and A3. Remote pilot competence requirements are introduced for A3.

For the specific category, the operator has to perform a risk analysis based on the planned use of the machine or on pilot’s skills, from which the operator would request an authorization from the national authority. To simplify that work, a concept of standard scenarios covering certain types of operations or flights has been developed.

As Morier said, more than 20 member states already have their own regulations, including the U.K., Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy.

France (with an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 leisure drones flying in 2015 and more than 3,000 for professional use) has been a pioneer on UAS rules. First decrees there were published in 2012 and modified by further decrees in December 2015 regarding essentially UASs below 25 kg.

French regulations distinguish between three categories according to use: recreational, experimental and “special.” Recreational UASs must remain within sight of the remote pilot in most cases. No specific authorization is required.

For “special activities,” including professional use, drones should fly below an altitude of 150 m. Different heights and distances have been set according to four pre-defined operational scenarios. Professional users must declare their activity to authorities, and identify their UAS with a small tag. A preliminary declaration is mandatory for flight over populated areas; a notification is also required for all beyond-line-of-sight flights.

Another decree, which should be published in 2017, would tackle the operator training issue by creating a dedicated UAS theoretical certificate; the current certificate is non-UAS specific.

Those decrees are often considered too loose on recreational drones. A more global law, adopted by the French senate in May (yet to be adopted by the assembly), would mandate registration for all drones above a certain mass (250 g is proposed by professional users) as well as electronic and luminous devices to signal the aircraft’s presence above a certain weight. It also would introduce a minimum training course for recreational UAS pilots.

France is quite critical of EASA’s proposals. Stéphane Morelli, president of the Professional Federation of Civil Drones in France, said risk analysis required for the specific category will make drones hardly accessible for many professionals. The open category, he said, mixes too many things. Most of all, the rules rely too much on geofencing, which he considers a “utopia.” Reluctant to depend on automation in avoiding restricted zones, he’d prefer to “create a sense of responsibility from human beings.” Rather than applying heavy, expensive technologies on drones, he advocates for short-term solutions, including apps like “Waze” for the drones. R&WI