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Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Regulations: A Deep Dive into the Evolving Landscape of the EU

Updated: Apr 10

Introduction: The Rise of the Drones

EASA drone illustration

Over the past ten years, the aviation landscape has undergone a profound transformation due to the advent of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), commonly known as drones. These cutting-edge aerial vehicles have inaugurated a new epoch across various domains, such as agriculture, infrastructure inspection, search and rescue operations, and aerial photography. Nonetheless, this swift technological advancement poses a considerable challenge: ensuring the safe and harmonious incorporation of UAS into well-established airspace systems.

This comprehensive analysis is dedicated to illuminating the regulatory frameworks that oversee UAS operations within the European Union (EU) and the United States (US). We will concentrate on the key regulatory bodies – the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in the EU and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US – dissecting and contrasting their approaches to UAS regulation.

As part of a trilogy of articles, this exploration begins with a brief review of the regulatory structures by EASA and the FAA for drone activities. We will then proceed to a detailed comparative study, emphasizing the subtle differences and significant distinctions between the regulatory strategies of these two aviation powerhouses.

This installment will focus exclusively on EASA, complementing our previous discussion on FAA regulations, which you can find here.

EASA - A Three-Tier Approach to Drone Regulation

In recent years, the sky above us has grown increasingly busy, not with birds or planes, but with drones. From delivering packages to capturing breathtaking aerial footage, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) applications are vast and varied. At the heart of the EU's regulation are three main categories of UAS operations: 'Open,' 'Specific,' and 'Certified.' Each category is defined by the risk associated with the operation, setting the stage for tailored requirements and operational limits. Recognizing the need for a regulatory framework to ensure these devices' safe and secure operation, the European Union introduced Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947.

Verification of the design of the UAS

Figure 1 - EASA Three-Tier Approach to Drone Regulation

The Open Category: Low-Risk Operations Made Simple – (EU) 2019/947 PART A

Drones can only be classified as "open category" if they meet these strict rules:

  1. Must be a pre-approved class (defined elsewhere), privately built, or meet specific conditions.

  2. Can't weigh more than 25 kilograms (roughly 55 pounds).

  3. Needs to be kept safely away from people and never flown over crowds.

  4. Pilots must always see the drone with their own eyes (except in special follow-me mode or with an observer).

  5. Limited to 120 meters above the ground, except briefly going over obstacles.

  6. Cannot carry hazardous materials or drop anything during flight.

This part defines the conditions under which UAS operations can be conducted without requiring prior authorization from the competent authority or a declaration by the UAS operator, given that the operation falls within certain limitations related to the risk it poses. The 'Open' category is subdivided into three subcategories (A1, A2, and A3) refer to Table 1, each with specific requirements related to the UAS's maximum take-off mass, operational distance from people, and the competency of the remote pilot, among other criteria. Operations in this category are considered to be low risk.

The 'Open' category is designed for low-risk drone operations, eliminating the need for prior authorization or declarations from operators. This category is subdivided into three subcategories (A1, A2, and A3), each catering to different sizes of drones and proximity to uninvolved persons. Here's a closer look:

  1. A1 Subcategory: Operations over people with small drones, posing a low risk of injury. Involves operations over people with small drones with a low risk of injury. Focuses on operations where drones may overfly uninvolved persons but not assemblies of people, with exceptions for certain types of unmanned aircraft that must avoid overflying people altogether. Remote pilots must be familiar with the drone's user manual, and for class C1 drones, complete online training and an examination covering various relevant subjects. Drones operated in this subcategory must meet specific class requirements and have features like direct remote identification and geo-awareness systems.

  2. The A2 Subcategory allows slightly larger drones to be operated close to people, requiring additional competencies from the remote pilot. To avoid overflying uninvolved persons, the drone maintains a safe horizontal distance, with some allowances for reduced distance under specific conditions. Remote pilots need to complete additional theoretical and practical training, culminating in a certificate of remote pilot competency. Drones in this subcategory must be marked as class C2 and include updated direct remote identification and geo-awareness systems.

  3. A3 Subcategory involves operations in areas far from people with larger drones, ensuring minimal risk to uninvolved persons. It is designed for operations where no uninvolved persons are expected to be endangered, maintaining a significant distance from residential, commercial, industrial, or recreational areas. Like A1, pilots must undergo online training and pass a theoretical knowledge exam. The drones must adhere to class specifications (C2, C3, or C4), equipped with direct remote identification and geo-awareness systems to operate safely in more isolated settings. Open Category operations must adhere to specific guidelines, such as flying within the visual line of sight (VLOS), maintaining a certain distance from people, and not exceeding an altitude of 120 meters above ground level.

Table 1 – EASA Subcategories and C-Class from 1 January 2024

Table 1 – EASA Subcategories and C-Class from 1 January 2024

Remote ID

Effective January 1, 2024, a pivotal regulation will be implemented mandating that all drones operating within the open category—subject to limited exceptions—be outfitted with a remote identification system. This innovative measure is designed to enhance airspace safety by enabling the identification and tracking of drones in flight.

In anticipation of this regulation, several manufacturers have proactively introduced modules equipped with direct remote identification capabilities. These products come with the ‘EU Declaration of Conformity,’ a testament to their adherence to relevant standards. A comprehensive list of these modules is available below for your reference.

It is crucial, however, to note that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has not independently verified the compliance of these components. The declaration of conformity is provided under the sole responsibility of the manufacturers. Drone operators and stakeholders must exercise due diligence in selecting and utilizing these remote identification systems, ensuring they meet the regulatory requirements for safe and compliant operations.

The Specific Category: Navigating Medium-Risk Operations – EU Regulation (EU) 2019/947 PART B

The 'specific' category encompasses drone operations with a higher risk profile. These operations are diverse, including but not limited to:

  • Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) activities,

  • Operations with drones having a Maximum Takeoff Mass (MTOM) over 25 kg,

  • Flights exceeding 120 meters above ground level,

  • Missions that involve dropping materials, and

  • Urban operations with drones heavier than 4 kg or lacking a class identification label.

These examples underscore the broad range of activities that require enhanced oversight and robust safety measures under the 'specific' category's umbrella.

Regulatory Pathways for 'Specific' Category Operations

To facilitate the diverse nature of operations within the 'specific' category, several pathways have been established for operators to obtain the necessary authorizations:

  1. Operational Authorization - To fly drones in Europe's "Specific Category" (medium risk), you typically need operational authorization from the National Aviation Authority (NAA) in your country. It is a requisite for conducting drone flights within the 'specific' category, not covered by STS or for operators without a LUC. It's a formal permission granted by the National Aviation Authority (NAA) after assessing the risks of the intended drone operations, including evaluating the operator's Operations Manual and the evidence of compliance with safety objectives.

  2. The Standard Scenario (STS) Declaration is a streamlined approach for operations that fit predefined scenarios with low risk.

  3. STS are pre-defined operations with established risk profiles that detail specific requirements UAS operators must follow.

  4. Operations under an STS do not require full operational authorization from the National Aviation Authority (NAA); operators can declare to the NAA.

  5. STS provides a simplified pathway for certain common types of UAS operations.

  6. Operational Authorization Following a Pre-Defined Risk Assessment (PDRA) utilized for operations matching existing risk assessments, necessitating comprehensive documentation.

  7. PDRA also outlines specific UAS operations but requires operators to obtain operational authorization from the NAA.

  8. Unlike STS, PDRA provides a detailed risk assessment template that the operator completes, detailing how their operation meets safety objectives.

  9. PDRA is used when there isn't a matching STS for the intended operation or for operations with a risk profile that is too complex for STS but still common enough to have a predefined assessment template.

  10. Operational Authorization Without a PDRA are operations outside standard scenarios; a bespoke Specific Operations Risk Assessment (SORA) is required.

  11. Light UAS Operator Certificate (LUC) offers operators certain privileges, including self-authorizing their operations under specified conditions, highlighting the importance of a Safety Management System (SMS). Thus granting self-authorizing their operations without the need for individual Operational Authorizations from the NAA. This certificate is issued to organizations demonstrating high operational competence and robust safety management systems.

  12. Design Verification Report (DVR)

  13. You can use a drone with a class label or declaration of compliance for SAIL I-III, but the National Aviation Authority (NAA) might sometimes require a DVR.

  14. A Design Verification Report (DVR) is an option for simplified compliance for SAIL IV.

Within the EASA framework's specific category, SC-Light UAS requirements can be used for voluntary certification of operations classified as SAIL level III and IV.

The Operations Manual is central to navigating these pathways. It is a document detailing the safety, compliance, and operational aspects of the UAS activities.

The Crucial Role of the Operations Manual

The Operations Manual is a linchpin for operators in the 'specific' category. Depending on the authorization pathway chosen, these manual and requisite documents are submitted for various purposes—securing operational authorization, following a PDRA, without a PDRA, or as part of LUC certification. This manual documents the comprehensive framework for conducting safe, compliant, and efficient operations.

Operational Declarations and the Advent of Remote Identification

With the operational declaration process outlined in UAS.SPEC.020, operators can declare compliance with standard scenarios, simplifying the authorization for specific operations. Furthermore, from 1 January 2024, a pivotal regulatory update mandates that all drones in the 'specific' category have a remote identification system. This requirement is set to enhance operational safety and security, facilitate effective airspace management, and identify UAS operations.

The Significance of SMS in LUC

A key aspect of the LUC is integrating a Safety Management System (SMS). An SMS systematically manages safety, including the necessary organizational structures, accountabilities, policies, and procedures. The SMS is foundational for operators holding a LUC, ensuring that all operations are conducted with the highest safety standards. It enables the operator to identify safety risks before they become serious issues, implement mitigative measures, and foster a safety-centric culture within the organization.

The SMS under the LUC framework requires operators to engage in continuous safety assessment and improvement, demonstrating their commitment to safety in compliance with regulatory standards and as a core business principle. This proactive approach to safety management is crucial in the dynamic and sometimes unpredictable realm of drone operations, where technological advancements and operational scopes constantly evolve.

Marta Cejuela Martin commented in the article JARUS SORA & FAA Order 8040.4 the following: “The current EASA's regulation requires the UAS operators to adopt a tailored Safety Management System (SMS) to obtain the Light UAS Operator Certificate (LUC). Although it is not required for Operational Authorization (OA) to be precise or generic to implement the SMS, some European NAAs have a list and ask to report the safety event or occurrences voluntarily/mandatory with the OA granted to complement the SORA approach.

The NAAs are indirectly causing operators to begin to have that safety culture at an organizational level, thus helping to continuously improve risk management and provide data on which to base future amendments to the regulation.

It is strongly recommended to have a Safety Risk Management in the UAS Manufacturer and Operator if you want to use the service experience to upgrade the operation from SAIL II to III and to have evidence of the safety events and occurrences that occurred in that period, and to take credit in the in-service accumulated FH without unsafe conditions due to technical issues.”

Design Verification Report (DVR)

A Design Verification Report (DVR) is a document issued by EASA that verifies a drone's design meets specific safety objectives. Here's a breakdown of what it is:

  • This confirms that a drone design aligns with EASA's safety standards, particularly for "Specific Category" (medium risk) operations.

  • Demonstrating that the drone meets EASA requirements simplifies compliance for operators. Operators can avoid independently assessing the drone's design if it has a DVR.

What is a DVR Not?

  • A DVR is not as rigorous as a type certificate, which is required for higher-risk drone operations (SAIL V & VI).

  • A Light UAS Operator Certificate (LUC) doesn't replace the need for a DVR if mandated by the National Aviation Authority (NAA). LUC holders cannot bypass drone design compliance checks without a DVR.: A DVR's validity is limited to EASA member states within Europe.

Obtaining a DVR:

  • Manufacturers apply to EASA using a designated form (FO.CSERV.00198).

  • The process involves a pre-application meeting, document submission to demonstrate compliance with EASA requirements, and a fee based on EASA's time evaluating the documents (around €250 per hour).

Who Needs a DVR?

  • The National Aviation Authority of a specific EASA member state may require a DVR in the operational authorization for a drone operation.

Manufacturers may apply for a DVR independently for business reasons, such as demonstrating safety to potential customers or streamlining future approvals in EASA member states.

Looking Forward: The Future of 'Specific' Category Operations

The regulatory landscape must adapt as the drone industry expands to ensure innovation does not outpace safety. The 'specific' category represents a balanced approach, providing a framework accommodating a wide spectrum of drone operations with varying risk profiles. Through the detailed regulatory pathways and compliance mechanisms outlined, including the crucial role of SMS for LUC holders, operators can navigate the complexities of the 'specific' category.

Understanding and adhering to these regulatory requirements is essential for operators seeking to conduct higher-risk drone operations responsibly. By selecting the appropriate authorization pathway, developing a comprehensive Operations Manual, and integrating an effective SMS, operators can ensure their drone operations' safety, efficiency, and compliance.


SC-LUAS (Special Condition for Light Unmanned Aircraft Systems)

SC-LUAS is a regulatory framework developed by EASA to specifically address the safety and certification requirements for Light Unmanned Aircraft Systems operating within the Specific Category. It sets out the conditions under which light UAS can operate, focusing on ensuring that these systems have a level of safety acceptable for operations that pose a medium risk to people, property, and other airspace users. The SC-LUAS includes technical requirements, safety objectives, and performance criteria that UAS manufacturers and operators must meet to obtain drone certification.

Applicability of SC-LUAS

SC-LUAS applies to light UAS operations that fall within the Specific category. These operations are characterized by their increased level of risk compared to the Open category but do not require the comprehensive certification processes associated with the Certified category. The Specific category includes a wide range of operations, such as:

  • Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations

  • Operations overpopulated areas or gatherings of people

  • Operations involving drones with a maximum takeoff mass (MTOM) above certain thresholds do not qualify for the Open category.

  • They are not designed to transport humans.

  • Their operation includes either the intervention of a remote pilot or they can operate autonomously.

  • They have a Maximum Take-Off Mass (MTOM) of up to 600 kg.

  • They are intended for use in the 'Specific' operations category associated with medium risk levels.

  • "Medium risk" refers to operations classified at Specific Assurance and Integrity Levels (SAIL) III and IV. There is an option for voluntary certification for operations in SAIL III and IV.

  • However, Special Condition Light UAS High Risk, applicable to SAIL V and VI, can be obtained from the SC Light-UAS Medium Risk 01.01 by applying the changes in SC Light-UAS High Risk 01

To conduct operations in the Specific category, UAS operators must obtain operational authorization from their respective national aviation authority (NAA). This involves conducting a Specific Operations Risk Assessment (SORA) to identify potential risks associated with the planned operation and demonstrating how these risks are mitigated to an acceptable level. Compliance with SC-LUAS can be a significant part of this process, as it provides a recognized standard for safety and technical requirements that helps to streamline the approval process.


FTB (Functional Test-Based) Approach

The FTB approach refers to demonstrating compliance with regulatory requirements through practical tests and functional assessments. This approach allows manufacturers and operators to use evidence from functional testing as a means of compliance (MoC) for certain aspects of the SC-LUAS requirements. The idea is that real-world testing and evidence gathering can effectively show that a UAS meets the safety and operational integrity standards required for operations within the Specific Category, particularly for operations considered to be of medium risk (e.g., operations that fall into Specific Assurance and Integrity Levels (SAIL) III and below).


The Certified Category: High-Risk Operations with Oversight

The 'Certified' category addresses the highest-risk drone operations, such as future passenger flights or air taxis. Like manned aviation, these operations require comprehensive certification, including a type certificate and a certificate of airworthiness for the drone, an air operator approval for the operator, and a licensed remote pilot.

This category is still under development. The EU is taking a phased approach to integrating high-risk drone operations into the broader aviation framework.

Towards a Safer Sky: The EU's Vision for Drone Operations

By categorizing drone operations based on risk and setting clear requirements for each category, Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947 aims to ensure the safe integration of drones into Europe's airspace. Whether a hobbyist capturing scenic views or a company delivering packages, the regulation provides a structured approach to drone operations, balancing innovation with safety and security.

As drone technology continues to evolve, the EU's regulatory framework is poised to adapt, ensuring the skies remain safe.




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