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Focus on Regulation

The New EU Aviation Strategy: Take-off for the UAS Industry?

In the wake of Germany’s new proposed regulations for commercial and hobbyist UAS (drone) operators, announced last month, the European Commission (EC) earlier this week revealed a broad new strategy to ensure that the European aviation sector remains competitive and reaps the benefits of a fast-changing and developing global economy. The EC’s new Aviation Strategy is designed to generate growth and foster innovation in the European aviation sector, while at the same time letting passengers profit from an expanded network of safer, cleaner and cheaper flights.

Notably, the Aviation Strategy contains a chapter on UAS called “Drones: unleashing their full potential.” The Commission recognizes that drones “represent a tremendous opportunity both for our aeronautical manufacturing industry, especially for small and medium sized enterprises, and for the many aviation and non-aviation businesses that will be able to integrate drones into their activities”. Responding to recent calls from Member States for a national regulatory framework for UAS activity, the Commission emphasizes the need for a regulatory framework at the European Union (“EU”) level in order to create a large single European market.

While lacking specific details, the Aviation Strategy as a whole adopts a strong pro-business approach. While it covers all drones for safety reasons, including small ones, the strategy promises rules “proportionate to the risk” to ensure that new developments are not hampered by overly burdensome rules and procedures. Industry standards also play a major role in the Commission’s plans.

The basic legal framework for drone operations in the EU is described in a draft new aviation safety Regulation (Articles 45-47 and Annex IX). The framework could provide a basis for standardized UAS rules that will be prepared by the European Aviation Safety Agency (“EASA”) in Cologne, Germany.

While it remains to be seen how the Commission and EASA will implement the proportionality approach, the Commission Staff Working Document offers some insight into the Commission’s strategy. The document describes how certain high risk operations (e.g., UAS operating near airports and in controlled airspace near manned aircraft) would require formal certification, while operator declarations alone may be sufficient for lower risk operations.

In the United States, the FAA’s proposed small UAS rule would apply equally to all UAS weighting less than 55 pounds. Many have argued that this “one size fits all” approach does not adequately account for the relative risks associated with different size UAS, and instead advocate a more risk-based approach, similar to that proposed in the new Aviation Strategy.

Any UAS rules at the EU level would still need to be adopted by Member States and it remains to be seen whether they will ultimately accept the Commission’s jurisdiction over UAS operations.