On December 20, 2018, at Gatwick, the UK’s second largest airport, more than 50 sightings of two drones were reported, and the authorities shut down the runways for 36 hours, affecting more than 120,000 passengers. The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) reported 93 near misses between planes and drones in 2017, and 117 in 2018. Rob Hunter, head of flight safety at BALPA, told U.K.’s Sky News, “Even two kilograms [4.4 lbs.] of metal and plastic, including the battery, hitting an aircraft windscreen or engine or a helicopter tail rotor, could be catastrophic.”


Given the growing risk to commercial aviation, along with many other concerns with the technology that produces flying objects that range from palm-size toys to experimental passenger carriers, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), on May 24, 2019, published a comprehensive list of common rules to be enacted across all the countries of the EU. The agency considered three categories for UAS (unmanned aircraft systems), open, specific, and certified, and along with the registration of craft, they drafted rules guiding the licensing of operators. Physical dangers, privacy, and nuisance issues such as noise are codified in the new guidelines.

The 70-page document is both comprehensive and very detailed. Definitions and classifications even include traditional model aircraft and model aircraft clubs. When they considered what can legally be carried on a drone, the full definition of restricted “dangerous goods” includes eight categories: explosives; gases (flammable, non-flammable, poisonous, oxygen, inhalation hazard); flammable liquids; flammable solids; oxidizing agents and organic peroxides; toxic and infectious substances; radioactive substances; and corrosive substances. The starter’s list of what needed to be addressed in this new legislative landscape must have seemed as daunting as what faces ethicists and legal experts trying to scan the scope of AI’s disruption.


To begin with, the manufacturers and owners of UAS have one year to prepare for the final implementation of the rules. And the list isn’t just a draconian chart of don’ts and penalties. Patrick Ky, the executive director of EASA explained the overall intention of his agency. “Europe will be the first region in the world to have a comprehensive set of rules ensuring safe, secure and sustainable operations of drones both for commercial and leisure activities. Common rules will help foster investment, innovation and growth in this promising sector.” Once you are authorized in your locale for registration, you can operate your UAS when traveling across the entire EU. In December 2019, at the next High Level Conference on Drones 2019, EASA will open up an in-depth discussion of the new rules before the regulations are enacted.

The rules define three categories for the operation of UAS:

1. The Open category of unmanned aircraft has a maximum takeoff mass of fewer than 25 kg (55 lbs.). The remote pilot ensures that the unmanned aircraft is kept at a safe distance from people and that it isn’t flown over assemblies of people. The pilot keeps the UAS within a visual line of sight at all times, and the unmanned aircraft is maintained within 120 meters (394 feet) from the closest point of the surface of the earth, except when overflying an obstacle. During flight, the unmanned aircraft does not carry dangerous goods and doesn’t drop any material.

2. The Specific category requires authorization if any one of the requirements of the Open category isn’t met. The authorization will require application to a competent authority as well as a special risk assessment report with “adequate mitigation measures” submitted by the applicant.

3. The Certified category requires additional controls for a UAS that flies over assemblies of people, involves the transport of people (air taxis), or involves carrying dangerous goods that may result in high risk for third parties in case of an accident.

Privacy concerns produced their own new rules. “Considering the risk to privacy and protection of personal data, operators of unmanned aircraft should be registered if they operate an unmanned aircraft which is equipped with a sensor able to capture personal data.” The exception is for those UAS that are, by law, considered toys.

As to the possible disturbance created by an overhead drone, the rules dictate, “Unmanned aircraft noise and emissions should be minimized as far as possible taking into account the operating conditions and various specific characteristics of individual Member States, such as the population density, where noise and emissions are of concern.”

The common rules document does wander off into the legalistic weeds, and it includes a small index of acronyms. But for EU residents and travelers whose businesses might involve drone technology, it’s an important step away from current emerging chaos. EASA explains, “The new rules include technical as well as operational requirements for drones.

On one hand they define the capabilities a drone must have to be flown safely. For instance, new drones will have to be individually identifiable, allowing the authorities to trace a particular drone if necessary. This will help to better prevent events similar to the ones that happened in 2018 at Gatwick and Heathrow airports. On the other hand, the rules cover each operation type, from those not requiring prior authorization, to those involving certified aircraft and operators, as well as minimum pilot training requirements.”

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