Regulation of special operations with drones in Europe

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The EU’s declared aim with the introduction of the new regulation was to create a single market in the drone sector, making it easier to provide services abroad. Article 13 of the Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947 created the legal possibility for this in principle, the essence of which is that the licence obtained must be notified to the competent foreign authority of the place of the planned operation. The latter authority can only impose additional risk mitigation measures necessary on the basis of local terrain and climate conditions, airspace restrictions, population density, but cannot call into question the other parts of the licence (e.g. the training and preparedness of the remote pilots).

The LUC and operational licences have so far not been issued in a hurry by national authorities, as the licensing and risk assessment process behind them required a completely new approach. However, the Norwegian Aviation Authority has recently issued Nordic Unmanned with a LUC covering the whole European Economic Area (Norway is not a member of the EU, but is a member of this area, which includes the EU, and therefore operates under EASA rules). The LUC is unique in that it not only gives a very broad territorial mandate, but also defines the UAS included in it not individually, but by type. It thus also acts as a quasi-type certificate, since Nordic Unmanned can produce several of the types included in the LUC (all of which are of its own design) and are automatically covered by the LUC.

The company therefore performs beyond visual range of flight (BVLOS) flights with drones developed in-house. And in this case, BVLOS means a flight range of 80 kilometres, which is necessary because the operations involve the delivery of equipment from land to offshore oil platforms by drone.

Nordic Unmanned can therefore now reach the entire European market with this one certificate. Few people might be surprised by such news, but the significance of the LUC awarded to Nordic Unmanned goes far beyond itself. To my knowledge, it is the first LUC in the whole of the EU to include a cross-border element, which creates the possibility of a single market in the EU for BVLOS operations in the drone field.

The case of Nordic Unmanned could be a major incentive for the industry to have a single authority for the licensing of BVLOS flights across the EU – a true one-stop-shop.

Before everyone starts attacking the aviation authority with LUC applications, it is worth noting that the training of BVLOS operations, especially by officially recognised organisations, is not well established. It would therefore be urgent to develop the necessary infrastructure and legal conditions for training BVLOS operations, and as these are lacking, it is unlikely that the Nordic Unmanned example will be followed very quickly and in large numbers by UAS operators.

On the authority side, however, this may signal a paradigm shift from the highly conservative pan-European perception of authorities, which has been limited to LUCs within national borders. The other important lesson of the decision is that it makes clear that in the current legislative environment, the way forward for professional, industrial and commercial (company) drone use is to obtain an LUC. This certification can provide the necessary flexibility to operators.

Of course, the LUC comes at a price: an administrative service fee to be paid at the time of application, and a very complex set of documentation, up to several hundred pages long, including a safety management system, which is a key element. It is therefore advisable to seek expert advice in the preparation of such an application.

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