EASA is proposing to impose UAS standards throughout EU Member States, harmonizing rules for UAS operations and establishing a low-risk and medium-risk operational categories, Open and Specific, respectively. In addition to the operating rules, EASA is also proposing to impose requirements on manufacturers, importers, and distributors to ensure that operators can more easily comply with the proposed framework, particularly for the operation of off-the-shelf UAS that will not require approvals. For businesses that want to go beyond the limits of the Open category operations, such as testing new UAS platforms, some form of approval will be required, but EASA is considering mechanisms that can facilitate those operations. EASA seeks public comments by September 15th.
EASA’s Open Category – Low-Risk, But Non-Negotiable Limitations
Based on the framework developed by the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS), EASA proposes rules for small UAS that allow operations without any further approval, provided the operations are conducted in accordance with the rule. This Open category of operations is further divided into three subcategories – A1 (Fly over people), A2 (Fly close to people), and A3 (Fly far from people)—which are subject to different UAS weight, operator, operation, and technology requirements. For example, a business that wants to fly close to people (A2) would be required to use a Class 2 UAS (i.e., less than 4 kg), keep a prescribed distance from uninvolved people, limit the maximum altitude, have a certificate of competence, be at least 16 years old (or be supervised), and use a UAS with electronic identification and geofencing. The key will be meeting all of the different operating, operator, and technical criteria for a business’s many different circumstances.
For Open category UAS, EASA has also proposed rules for manufacturers, importers, and distributors. These market regulations require manufacturers and importers to ensure the UAS meets the technical criteria for the marketed Class of UAS, including weight, safety, power, capabilities, lighting, and labeling, among others.
Beyond the Open Category – Specific Category, Certified Category & Drone Zones
For those operators that want to fly outside of the Open category criteria, EASA proposes two options in the Specific category: (1) flying within a pre-approved “scenario”; or (2) obtaining flight approvals from the appropriate authorities. However, businesses that seek and are willing to undertake a more independent approach may self-approve Specific category operations after obtaining a Light UAS operator certificate, which requires operator-established maintenance and safety systems.
EASA did not propose a category for high-risk operations—the so-called Certified category—leaving the regulation of those operations to the individual Member States. Although EASA is currently developing a list of operations that it expects to fall in the Certified category, it has not defined the ultimate thresholds and seeks stakeholder input.
Despite imposing the Open category limits and requiring Specific category approval, EASA is also allowing Member States to designating drone-zones that do not require compliance with the Open category or Specific category requirements. This should facilitate UAS testing and development. Conversely, Member States can designate areas that have heightened limitations or altogether prohibit UAS operations in areas, allowing Member States to address security and other concerns.
Major Differences from the US Regulatory Framework
The three key differences between the proposed EASA framework and the current US framework are: (1) EASA’s proposed rules are applicable to recreational use UAS, or “model” aircraft, whereas the US does not regulate model aircraft except for reckless and careless operations; (2) EASA would allow certain operations over people without special authorization, whereas waivers are required in the US; and (3) EASA would impose UAS technical requirements for small UAS, whereas the US imposes none.
EASA’s proposed rules are a significant shift in UAS rules throughout Europe, moving away from Member State frameworks that varied greatly and often lacked a comprehensive framework that applies to small and large UAS, as well as manufacturers and distributors of small UAS. UAS stakeholders, including operators, foreign operators, manufacturers, importers, and distributors, will have to ensure the current operations are compliant, make operational changes, seek approvals, or altogether develop new operating plans. Although this is EASA’s second round of public comments, those businesses facing the greatest impact should consider submitting comments that may alleviate any prospective burdens.