Much has been made (rightly so) of the introduction and level of charge for registration of all remote pilots and their aircraft that comes in to force in November.  From the perspective of a commercial operator, this represents a minor annoyance, inconvenience and another bit of administration.

I am more concerned about the impact of the EASA regulations that are due to come in to force in July 2020 on not just my business, but the wider commercial drone industry – I believe that everyone is going to be impacted in some way.  To be clear, I think it will have impacts on commercial drone operators, NQEs, retailers, drone manufacturers, insurers and clients.

This article is my opinion and interpretation of the new EASA regulations that have recently been passed and the paper that the CAA issued that provides further analysis of the changes.  If you have a different viewpoint, can add any discussion or have any further information about how the new regulations are going to be applied please contact me through the website, Twitter, LinkedIn or via email (info@dronesondemand.co.uk).

You can download the documents this post is based on here:

Both of the documents are now in force, but the Implementing Regulation does not apply until 1st July 2020.

Firstly, let me try and explain the two new concepts that the Implementing Regulation introduces before I try and summarise what I see as the likely impacts:

  • Operating Categories
  • Drone (SUA) Classification

Operating Categories

The regulation introduces three categories, summarised in CAP 1729 as:

  • Open: Operations that present a low (or no) risk to third parties. Operations are conducted in accordance with basic and pre-defined characteristics and are not subject to any further authorisation requirements.
  • Specific: Operations that present a greater risk than that of the Open category, or where one or more elements of the operation fall outside the boundaries of the Open category. Operations will require an operational authorisation from the CAA, based on a safety risk assessment.
  • Certified: Operations that present an equivalent risk to that of manned aviation and so will be subjected to the same regulatory regime (i.e. certification of the aircraft, certification of the operator, licensing of the pilot)

Reading the documents through, there appears to be no requirement for any permit / operational authorisation for commercial operation within the Open category.

What I think that this means is that so long as the SUA operator has registered the drone, the remote pilot has got a pilot number (complied with DRES) and they are flying a Class marked CE compliant drone (more on this in a bit) then there is no further regulation or requirement to operate commercially.  This means that anyone or any business can comply with DRES (£16 at time of writing), purchase a Class Marked CE complaint drone (TBC – guess £800+) and either charge customers or use internally with no further regulation or training requirement.

The new regulation is not specific on whether there will be a requirement for Public Liability insurance.  The CAA, however, point out that all drones that are not being used for sport or recreation must be insured.  I believe that in line with the recent changes to policy at the CAA they will not check (and in fact will have no means of checking) that drones being used for commercial purposes are appropriacy and adequately insured.

The PFCO is dead – no permit/authoriastion is required to operate commercially or if you can operate in the Open Category.

What does this mean?  My belief is that those PFCO holders who mainly / only operate within the Open category will purchase a Class marked CE drone and not require any further contact with or regulation by the CAA.  I also believe that those companies who are currently contracting work out that would fall within / could be achieved within the Open category will just buy their own drone and get on with it themselves.

My belief is that this will increase the level of risk posed to third parties as these pilots will have no formal training (other than the DRES multiple choice test) or be required to show any level of basic pilot competency.  I suspect that reliance will increasingly be made on the geofencing capabilities of the SUA to inform whether a flight is possible and I also suspect that there will be reduced awareness of the risks posed by SUA operation and less / no effective risk mitigation.

OK – so surely operating within the Open Category is the way forward; why would you need to operate in the Specific Category?  Where’s the catch?

(I am not going to look at the Certified Category – this relates to carriage of dangerous goods, flying people around, etc and isn’t relevant to most commercial operators currently).

The Drone (SUA) Classes

The CAA have produced a table showing the classes on the last page of CAP 1729.  I’m not going to reproduce it again here, but it may be useful to have it to hand as I look at the Classes and implications.

Note that these classes are only relevant for drones being operated in the Open category – you can operate any drone of any / no class in the Specific and Certified categories so long as you can satisfy the CAA that you are able to suitably mitigate the risks posed by your operation.  If you can do this, you will receive an Operational Authorisation.

There are common restrictions that apply across all classes:

  • 400ft (120m) max height above surface, unless you are within 50m of a structure higher than 105m in which case you can fly 15m higher than the structure (so long as you have approval from the party responsible for the structure)
  • Keep within VLOS (Follow Me mode can also be used)
  • You can’t drop anything
  • You can’t carry dangerous goods

It should also be noted that there is no reference within the documents to vehicles, vessels and structures, only people.  This is not consistent with the current wording of CAP393 and CAP722.  I see no reason why I shouldn’t assume that people also equals vehicles, vessels and structures.

To try and bring it to life, I’ve shown where current drones would fit based on maximum take off mass (MTOM) alone – they are not complaint with the CE marked categories and will be classed as ‘Legacy’ drones (I cover what this means at the end of this section).  You will not be able to operate your existing Mavic and Inspire drones in these classes – my guess is that you will have to buy a new, CE Class marked drone.

Class C0 – MTOM less than 250g and capable of a speed of no more than 19 m/s:

  • Fly over uninvolved people, but not assemblies of people (assemblies is not defined by a number of people in the regulation, but I’d guess that this will align with the 1000 people that we are currently recognise)
  • There is no minimum separation distance defined other than ‘safe distance’
  • There is no distinction between Congested and non-Congested areas
  • My interpretation of this is essentially “do what you want, where you want”

Class C1 – MTOM less than 900g and capable of a speed of no more than 19 m/s (DJI Spark – 300g, DJI Mavic Air – 430g, Mavic Pro – 734g)

  • No intentional flight over uninvolved persons
  • There is no minimum separation distance defined other than ‘safe distance’
  • There is no distinction between Congested and non-Congested areas
  • This is more tricky to guess how this will be applied and it will come down to the definition and application of ‘intentional’ and also whether the ‘uninvolved persons’ extends to vehicles, vessels and structures. This could either be a “do what you want, where you want” scenario or far more restrictive – arguing that you did not intend to fly over a person is far easier than arguing that you didn’t intentionally fly over a building
  • Photography, building inspection and mapping in congested areas will be significantly easier than under current regulations, depending on the definitions of intentional and whether persons extends to vehicles, vessels and structures

Class C2 – MTOM less than 4kg (DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise – 1.1kg, DJI Mavic DJI Phantom 4 RTK – 1.4kg, eBee series)

  • No closer than 30m horizontally from uninvolved persons
  • No closer than 5m horizontally from uninvolved persons in using a low speed mode
  • Remember the cylinder / bubble debate and we all agreed on a bubble? Well, we’re back to a cylinder – no overflight of uninvolved people (will this also be extended to vehicles, vessels and structures?  What if there are people in the V, V, S?)
  • Photography and building inspection in build up areas will be significantly easier. How easy, again, is dependent on whether ‘people’ is expanded to include vehicles, vessels and structures

Class C3 – MTOM less than 25kg (DJI Inspire 2 – 4.25kg, M210 – 6.14kg, M600 – 15.5kg)

  • No uninvolved people present within the area of the flight
  • No flight within 150m of residential, commercial, industrial or recreational areas
  • Pessimistically, I wonder where you can actually operate in this category – doesn’t everywhere fall in to one of these four areas? Farmland / fields – industrial?  Moorland – recreational?  Optimistically, let’s assume for a second (and this CAA also reference it) that the definition of the areas would align with the current Congested Areas, so no flight within a congested area
  • Another key term that needs further definition is ‘within the range of the SUA operation’ – this is ‘the area’ that the CAA refer to. Does this mean that if conducting a survey flight of a reservoir that has a public footpath running through it that it would be ‘unreasonable to expect that an uninvolved person would be endangered by the SUA’?
  • There is no minimum separation distance defined either, should there be an unexpected third party appear in the area of the operation (remember, we’re not expecting anyone to be there or we wouldn’t be allowed to operate). However, in CAP 1789, the CAA mention that they are awaiting further guidance from EASA but expect it to be at least 50m horizontally.  Back to the cylinder again – no overflight; will this also apply to vehicles, vessels and structures?

Class 4 – MTOM less than 25kg

  • This class relates to aircraft that would traditionally be thought of as model aircraft and have no automated flight modes

I think that the most important aspects of these classes are whether you can operate them in a congested area and whether you can overfly people.  I’ve tried to show this in the table below.

 

ClassCongested AreaOverfly PeopleSeparation (Horizontal)
Class 0NA
Class 1✘*None Specified
Class 230m (5m low speed)
Class 3=>50m?
Class 4=>50m?

* No intentional overflight

 

To summarise the classes:

  • Separation distances are reduced to ‘safe’ or 5m, but…
  • For any drone weighing more than 250g the ‘bubble’ is no more – you will not be permitted to fly over people (will this also extend to vehicles, vessels and structures?) in the Open Category
  • The Congested Area weight restriction is back –in 2016 when I first started operating it was anything over 7kg – now it’s 4kg

If you are wondering what happens if you want to carry on using the drones you currently have (know as legacy drones) in the Open Category when the new regulations come in to force, well, you can until the end of June 2022.  But:

  • If it weighs more than 2kg you can’t operate it in a congested area
  • If it weighs between 500g and 2kg to can operate in a congested area, but will have a 50m horizontal separation distance
  • If it weighs less than 500g you can operate in a congested area but not overfly people

 

 

Summary

It is clear that any operations that require overflying of uninvolved people with a drone with a decent camera (unless DJI can squeeze a good camera on a drone weighing in at less than 250g) do not fall into the Open Category of operations.  This means that they will fall into the Specific Category of operations and require an Operational Authorisation.

It is not yet clear what will be required to gain an Operational Authorisation, but it’s risk based (EASA are supposed to be publishing a standard set of risks) and has to be granted by the CAA.  I think that it’s fairly safe to assume that it will require additional operator and pilot training including aviation law, meteorology, risk mitigation, etc, etc, and will probably be devolved (sound familiar?).

If I was a betting man, I’d guess that there will be a ‘standard’ Operational Authorisation that grants:

  • Operation within a Congested Area, and
  • Permission to overfly uninvolved people, and
  • Defines separation distances

So what does all this mean?

Commercial Operators: work that falls within the Open category will no longer be the preserve of companies and individuals with a PFCO. I fear that this may be the death knell for quite a lot of commercial operators once this barrier is removed.  Current clients will consider doing it themselves or the price will drop as anyone with a drone could be competing for the work.

The saving grace of this deregulation is that anyone who is needing to overfly will need an Operational Authorisation, preserving a barrier to entry for a proportion of the current work that holders of PFCOs are undertaking.

I’m assuming that the current PFCO will remain valid ‘as is’ until it expires, then operations will fall under the new Operational Authorisation. If your work is within the Open category I suspect that you will adopt the new legislation as soon as it comes in to force on the 1st July 2020 and not bother gaining an Operational Authorisation.

NQEs: operation within a congested area and the requirement to have a permit if operating commercially drove demand to the NQEs.  In future, any of their potential client base who can operate within the Open Category will no longer be forced to undertake any training.  I would anticipate that demand for Operational Authorisation courses will be significantly less than that for PFCOs.

NQEs will also have to develop a new course / course material that is complaint with the Operational Authorisation requirements

Retailers: I suspect that there will be a reduction in demand for the existing stock of drones that isn’t compliant with the new CE marked classes once operators and consumers have a better feel for the incoming regulations. Once the manufacturers have made CE class marked drones available, I would expect that there will be a surge of operators changing to the new kit so that they can operate in accordance with the new regulations.  This will make for the second hand market becoming flooded and prices dropping.  I bet that any drone that is C2 marked will prove especially popular with ‘commercial operators’ and those that are C1 marked will be popular with hobby pilots.

Drone operator hire networks: I think that the requests for basic photography work will reduce and / or the price will drop as more people do it themselves

Drone manufacturers: the race is on to design, build and certify drones for use within the Open Category. Drones for use in the Specific category do not have to be CE class marked – but it is not clear whether the CE class compliance will form a large part of the risk mitigation required for the Operational Authorisation

Insurers: with no requirement to show / confirm that Public Liability insurance is in place to the Regulator and no record of who is using a drone commercially (even though it remains a requirement to have insurance if operating commercially) I feel that the risk profile of drone operations will increase (due to lack of training) and the number of policies underwritten is likely to reduce, largely due to a lack of awareness of the requirement to be insured unless retailers have to communicate this requirement at point of sale.  This will, of course, change if it becomes mandatory for all operators of drones to have Public Liability insurance

CAA: at a minimum will need to issue revised CAP393 ANO, new CAP722, new guidance for NQEs. Worryingly, in CAP 1789 the CAA are aiming to issue a revised CAP 722 by June 2020 – this seems to give very little time to produce the new documents required for a July 2020 initial application for an Operational Authorisation or renewal of a PFCO.  I also wonder whether the turnaround times will increase and number of organisations / individuals being fined for rejections will rocket?

The new legislation presents a huge change to the way that drones are operated in the UK (and Europe).  Please contact me either through the website, by email (info@dronesondemand.co.uk) or though LinkedIn or Twitter if you have any questions, comments or observations – or you feel that I’ve interpreted the legislation wrongly or got the potential impacts wrong.  I’d love to know your thoughts on this too.