EU regulation on drones and models

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The new EU legislation, which will come into force on 1 January 2021, has been criticised for lumping together modelers and drones, and models (officially known as model aircraft) and drones, forcing modelers to comply with rules that were only “imposed” on them, apparently, because of the mass emergence of drones and the new regulation. The issue is, as is usual in such a complex area of regulation, much more complex.

In order to understand the regulation, we need to know what models are in legal terms. To do this, it is worth looking at the wording in the preamble to the Implementing Regulation on drone operations. It is true, and the European Commission itself acknowledges, that ‘the operation of these models in clubs and associations has been shown to be at an adequate level of safety’. But even before that, it also states that model aircraft are already classified as UAS, unmanned aircraft systems, i.e. modelers have already legally carried out drone operations, but that is not what the vernacular would call them.

From a technical point of view, the model is also a UAS, since the system is made up of three main structural units in the same way as a conventional drone: an aircraft, which is the model itself, a remote control (also known as a remote pilot station), which is used to control the movement of the model, and
the antenna system, which provides the radio link between the model and the remote control.

Another piece of EU legislation defined unmanned aerial vehicle models (which we will call models for simplicity) as unmanned aerial vehicles years ago, leaving them as unmanned aerial vehicles used for recreational or demonstration flying and not exceeding a certain weight limit. That is, a model is nothing more than a drone used for recreational purposes. What is important is that this is also true in reverse, a drone used exclusively for recreational purposes (i.e. no remuneration for flying is paid directly or indirectly) can be considered a model.

Obviously, because of recreational use, it cannot be expected to meet the same technical requirements as a professional drone used for commercial purposes, which is why the EU created the later C4 UA class, the only UA class allowed in the open operations category, which, again in line with the tradition of modelling, allows the use of an internal combustion engine while requiring the least amount of other technical equipment. The smooth transition will also be facilitated by the fact that products placed on the market before 1 January 2023 without a UA class definition will be able to be used in the operational subcategories A1 and A3, and that self-built models (drones), which are common in modelling, will also be able to fly in these subcategories (according to their take-off weight, as appropriate – under 25 kg in A3 and under 250 g in A1).

It is also important to clarify that the presence or absence of a camera mounted on a drone or model does not affect the qualification of the device as an unmanned aerial vehicle, and the same applies to telemetry.

It is essential that models must also be registered with the authorities, so this obligation should not be overlooked. As with conventional commercial drones, once registered, they will also be given a unique registration mark to be affixed to the device.

Clubs can guarantee safety

Article 16 of the Implementing Regulation changes this and, in addition to certain obligations, also provides opportunities for operators in the modelling scene to apply for and obtain a Member State authorisation to authorise certain operations under their own authority in the country of operation.

This licence is very similar to the operations licence presented in the specific category and, in particular, to the Light UAS Operator Certificate (LUC). If a model club demonstrates that it can establish an organisational structure, procedures, internal record-keeping and management system (even in its terminology very similar to the safety management system required by the LUC) that guarantees maximum safety for the operations carried out within the club, it can obtain privileges that were not previously possible under the rules. This is a major opportunity to make the regulation of events organised within the club framework fully transparent and to ensure that competitions for models flying above 120 metres can be held in a fully legally regulated environment.

However, in the case of operations carried out in the framework of an association, account should be taken of the restrictions that apply to such operations. These may, in some cases, be much stricter than the legal provisions in force in the area concerned. In this way, although the rules provide for limited possibilities, they allow for operations to be carried out without the need for a separate individual licence per club member, and thus the administrative burden for members of flying under the auspices of the clubs is much reduced.

As described above, the regulatory logic of licensing is similar to the logic of operational licensing and LUC, which also means that licensing defines both the scope of operations that can be authorised under its own authority, the models (drones) involved in the operations, and, where appropriate, the minimum qualifications and competences. As the authorisation is only governed by Article 16 of the implementing regulation, which is not very detailed but directly applicable, and it is assumed that the authority may also require a risk assessment to be carried out in accordance with the SORA methodology, for which experts with experience in risk assessment may be needed. This is particularly the case if the association wishes to obtain a self-certificate for a specific area for predefined operations that can be well described by operational parameters (e.g. predefined model types, defined limits for the operational execution of operations, etc.)

As for other specific operations, it is true that the preparations and documentation required to obtain a licence will depend on the operations and models to be authorised, but it is certain that the request for ad hoc airspace, if required by law (e.g. inhabited area or altitude above 120 m), will not be replaced by such a licence (nor, for example, by a LUC) and that the licence will only apply to domestic operations at association events. If a club member wishes to practice separately, he/she will have to obtain the necessary permits on his/her own.

The EU legislator did not therefore want to make it impossible, but to clarify the rules on modelling, so that there is a single point of alignment within which Member States and clubs have room for manoeuvre. Authorisation may also be sought for the club itself to approve a large number of operations with models not in the UA class, which would otherwise be open category if the UA class identification label were present, and for which members would have to apply individually for a separate authorisation to operate. This is therefore a clear relief for modellers.

It is essential that the members of such organisations are also registered as UAS operators, so this obligation should not be forgotten. In addition, the UAS Operator Identification Number obtained during registration must be displayed on the model used. All modellers and associations are advised to inform themselves about the possibilities and conditions and to seek professional help, as much depends on the correct legal certification.

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