The 2021 drone regulations landscape

Ever since drone technology started making solid inroads into the mainstream commercial and industrial operations, the laws governing them have been correspondingly revolving.

In some parts, the regulatory changes have been encouraging, recognising drone technology as an industrial sector that was worth investing in; hence worth preparing a solid regulatory framework for. There have been laws on where drones should fly, how far they should fly, and for what purpose they should fly – laws that have been modified as drones got more and more sophisticated and more and more ubiquitous.

Sadly, in other parts, the laws have sadly not been friendly. There are still countries where commercial drones are still banned outright. A good few of these are in Africa, which ironically has seen an encouraging rise in drone application in the past year. Since Rwanda hosted the African Drone Forum in February last year, developments in the drone space in Africa have been really encouraging – more drones in precision agriculture, medical delivery, border surveillance; and even forays into policing.

But it seems we still have a long way to go when in comes to rolling out technology-friendly regulation, like they have done in the European Union and the USA. In the below article, Hendrik Boedecker, CFO and Co-founder of drone market research company, Drone Industry Insights, traces the evolution of drone laws in the USA and Europe, delving into risk categorisation, airworthiness, and remote identification guidelines.

He starts at the beginning…

Pioneering the early days

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) – the mother of global aviation standards – started exploring drone technology in 2005 with the goal of assessing activities and use of standards for drones in the civil airspace. The results were summarised in the ICAO Circular, Unmanned Aircraft Systems in 2011 and national aviation authorities adopted these efforts. France (2015) was one of the first countries to set the basic framework for the nowadays common drone regulation rules, which include flights below 500 feet or keeping the drones within visual line of sight. Other countries followed slowly but steadily.

These included Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the USA, and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in Europe. They are the leading aviation legislators whose legislative system and standards have been adapted in many other countries.

The June 2016 publication of Part 107 regulations by the FAA changed the drone regulatory framework dramatically, for it allowed drone users an easier access to the market. The challenge: Everyone was now able to fly drones under Part 107 so that the commercial market grew strongly through easy, controllable small drones which offered the possibility to apply new use cases. The effect was that the access to the airspace was very simple and it got very hard to manage and enforce the 107 rules. Airspace violations grew as neglect of rules increased.

Part 107 was designed for “easy” or non-complex applications. Everything else and more complex was nearly impossible given that waivers were not granted in the majority of cases. There was no standardised way to handle waivers, so they were checked individually in an event-based manner. This caused long lead times due to the administrative bottleneck and due to the lack of learnings/references to a high rejection rate. Typical requests were BVLOS missions, operation over people and flights at night.

The European way

EASA at this point was not inactive; it closely observed the developments in the USA. All nations within in the EU had individual (more or less permissive) regulatory frameworks at that time. The EASA took these learnings into consideration. This explains the huge time gap for when they published their final drone operation Regulation (EU) 2019/947 – exactly three years later in June 2019.

Some of the key differences include how to make risk assessments and how to apply for approval. Predefined risk categories are also included and make this framework much easier to handle in comparison with FAA.

The year 2021 is very important in this regard, because the new rules for operating drones have come into effect for users in the EASA member states since December 31, 2020.

Recently, the FAA also considered a predefined risk categorisation for the first time with the publication of the new rule, called The Operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Over People (OOP) on December 28 last year. This rule is very similar to the risk categorisation of the specific category of (EU) 2019/947, because it enables a clear identification of low, medium and high-risk operation and gives direction of what is needed to be in compliance.

These predefined risk categories of the EASA and FAA mean a strong simplification for the end user and are not only accessible in the US or EASA member states. Other countries like Singapore or Australia, have also published similar rules.

To summarise what is possible now: operating simple low-risk flights without any license is standard throughout Europe today.

New requirements to maximise potential

Commercial aviation is strongly regulated and since drones and aircrafts will share the same airspace, drone technology needs to be integrated into these aviation frameworks. In other words, the rules that are needed to use the drones’ full potential today are still missing. The risk-oriented approach in the EU and USA (as well as many other countries), is ideally suited for defining new, more advanced and complex missions in this airspace. To do this, operational, airworthiness and personnel standards are required. There are some standards available (like the JARUS SORA) but we need more, especially in the field of airworthiness. Airworthiness means the measure of a drone’s suitability for safe flight, which is an essential part of drone certification.

To make BVLOS and OOP possible, both aviation authorities are currently working hard on airworthiness standards, but also on remote identification rules to enable the integration of drones into the airspace.

In this field, the initial steps were done by the FAA and EASA at the end of 2020. The EASA published their special conditions for the issuance of a type certificate for drones up to 600kg to be in compliance with drone operation under medium risk in the Specific Category of (EU) 2019/947. The FAA showed a different approach by publishing airworthiness criteria of 10 different drone types with max weight of 40kg, such as the Wingcopter model 198 drone, the Zipline Sparrow or the Percepto model 2.4.

The new remote ID rule of the FAA requires modifying drone hardware to enable the permanent broadcast of identification and location of the drone and control station. When the drone is intended to be operated in the US airspace this means that every drone manufacturer needs to add a Remote ID Broadcast Module within eighteen months after the rule`s effective date (which was December 28th, 2020). It is worth mentioning here that ADS-B transponders are not allowed as broadcast devices to make a clear distinction from manned air traffic.

The terms airworthiness and remote ID are not relevant for end users – however, it is a challenging task for manufacturers to comply with these new requirements. As mentioned above, these requirements are only applicable for complex missions – all other, less complex types of mission do not have to comply with these requirements.

Are these standards sufficient to create a certain level of safety? Aviation experts say that drone regulation and standards need to be supplemented with safety culture. A management system has a human-centred focus and involves all stakeholders who participate to operate drones. Such a system is called Safety Management System (SMS), which puts a focus on procedures (like training, occurrence reporting), as well as on safety and error management culture. An initial guide for the drone industry has already been published by the National Business Aviation Association. The implementation of such a management system can be simple or very complex – depending on the size and nature of the company. SMS will play an important role in drone operation. The EASA has already integrated the SMS into the (EU) 2019/947 rule as a prerequisite for the approval of a Light Unmanned Certificate (LUC).

The next two years

In the next two years operators and manufacturers face the challenge of complying with new requirements (rules and standards) to fly advanced missions. This may sound bad but is actually good news since it finally allows them to use drones to their fullest potential. Operation over people, at night, beyond visual line of sight or a combination of these three will leverage the disruptive potential of drone technology and dramatically push the market forward.

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