Turbulence for drone users as EU adopts set of measures to protect citizens

Article written by Neil Portelli – Director, EU Policy & Legislation, MEUSAC
Published in The Malta Independent – 26.08.19

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, are remotely flown. Initially created with the intention of being used for military missions in zones that are considered ‘dangerous’ for humans to fly aircraft over, the use of drones is increasingly expanding into other areas, such as in the commercial, recreational, photographic and scientific sectors.

While drone circulation was considered innocuous at first, drone sightings have sadly caused operational disruptions in key facilities worldwide and many citizens are considering drones an invasion of privacy. One may recall the two drone sightings which led to the closure of Gatwick airport in December 2018 and the temporary closure of one of the runways at Malta International Airport earlier this year. Citizens are also questioning the legality of drones flying within the limits of their residences and lamenting the lack of strong legislation regarding drones and the way in which they are being used.

Calls for legal considerations to be made in this sector have led the European Commission to start establishing rules aimed at mitigating risks brought by drone flying with ‘malicious’ intent. While in March of 2019, the Commission adopted common EU-wide rules that set out basic technical requirements for drone use, rulings applying to all drone operators – both professionals and those flying drones for leisure – have also been adopted in a bid to ascertain drone traffic across Europe is safe and secure, for citizens on the ground and in the air.

The rules, while replacing any existing ones on a national level in all EU Member States, are intended to continue strengthening the Commission’s Aviation Strategy for Europe which is intended to act as a balancing act between maintaining the highest level of security and safety while supporting the Union’s competitiveness in the aviation industry. It is the Commission’s aim that a sector in which the EU has maybe found itself unprepared in combating, is properly addressed in terms of risks it may pose.

Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc, in a comment on these rulings, said: “The EU will now have the most advanced rules worldwide. This will pave the way for safe, secure and green drone flights. It also provides the much-needed clarity for the business sector and for drone innovators Europe-wide.”

So, what are the rules the Commission is adopting?
National authorities in all Member States will now have the means to prevent and/or counter act misuse or unlawful drone activities through an operators’ registration system, remote identification and definition of geographical zones. As a result, all drone operators will, as of 2020, have to be registered with the competent national authorities. While in principle, the rules will apply to all drones and their users, irrespective of weight, it is only a minimum set of criteria and/or requirements that need to be met by most drone operators such as registration and electronic identification. Drones weighing less than 25kg will be able to fly those without prior permission under a certain number of conditions. Among other conditions are that the drone must not be flown higher than 120 metres and that the operator always keeps the drone in his/her visual line of sight and flies it far off from people and ‘No-fly zones’.

In the coming months, the Commission together with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), will be working on guidelines related to drone operations. Once published, these will guide drone operators on the rules that have been adopted. These guidelines will also tie up with a sound review of all existing EU aviation rules to make all necessary changes in order to improve drone operation applicability.

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