In the case of “special” category UAS operations, the UAS operator has the possibility in some cases not to have to have each operation separately authorised by the authority, by applying for an operation licence again and again, but to do it himself, by holding a so-called LUC certificate. In this article, we will discuss the conditions for this and how to obtain such a certificate that can provide these facilitations.
What is a Light UAS Operator Certificate, or more simply known as LUC ?
It is a certificate that can only be applied for by organisations with legal personality (i.e. not by a sole trader, for example). The reason for this, as explained below, is that it is not only the operations to be carried out that are being assessed, but also the suitability of the organisation that will subsequently authorise them under its own authority. The LUC gives the holder the possibility to authorise himself to carry out the types of operations covered by the certificate (e.g. line inspection flights), provided that the operation is carried out in accordance with the boundary conditions set by the authority and laid down in the LUC.
The certificate issued will specify the exact boundary conditions (e.g. minimum knowledge required of the remote pilot, UAS functions used, area of operation characteristics, safety indicators to be guaranteed in the risk analysis, etc.). If these are met, the operation can be carried out under the LUC and the UAS operator is exempted from the need to apply for an individual licence.
The LUC itself is valid for an indefinite period of time, until the UAS operator can ensure the necessary boundary conditions for the execution of the operations, as specified by the authority. Its validity does not apply to a specific area, but to all areas that comply with the restrictions laid down in the LUC. For this reason, the authority periodically examines, in a risk-based monitoring system, the organisations holding a LUC, which are required to submit to the authority a risk assessment of all the operations they carry out, going back three years.
It can already be seen from the above that the LUC, while significantly limiting the operations that can be carried out, is essential in that it gives the holder the possibility to carry out operations without restriction, subject to the conditions of the licence.
In contrast to an operation licence, the LUC is recommended for users who wish to carry out one or more well-defined types of operations frequently, but who do not wish to limit the operation to a single location, but who wish to carry out the operation at a location with well-defined characteristics (e.g. inspection of a transmission line outside a populated area).
What is required to apply for and obtain an LUC?
Compared to an application for an operating licence, obtaining a light UAS operator certificate is a much more complex process, but it also gives the operator much more flexibility than an operating licence.
The detailed rules and documents to be submitted for the acquisition are set out in Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947 and the AMC/GM that is integrally linked to it (Acceptable Means of Compliance (AMC) and Guidance Material (GM) to Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947).
The LUC application is conditional on the organisation applying for the LUC having:
A well-designed and structured organisation that supports the safe conduct of flight operations from planning through implementation, to maintenance and back-up administration. This ensures that there is adequate control over operations.
Within the organisation, there are clear lines of responsibility and well-defined and segregated functions where there are no conflicts of interest (e.g. the head of safety is not under pressure from the head of finance).
The organisation has a safety management system in place to ensure that risks associated with aviation are managed and mitigated and to ensure that a high level of safety is maintained.
In the planning and management of the operation The personnel involved in the planning and execution of the operation have demonstrated the knowledge required to conduct the operations (e.g. remote piloting skills, risk analysis skills, etc.).
An adequate documentation system that stores years of data relating to the operations and that is capable of being accessed or retrieved by the overseeing authority at any time.
The organisation must have a safety policy and associated safety objectives.
The organisation must have a so-called LUC manual detailing the procedures and activities (types of activities) that the LUC holder wishes to perform. The manual also includes an Operational Manual, which specifically describes how to use drones, what procedures to follow and how to do so in case of a problem, what to do in case of an emergency, etc.
If the UAS operator subcontracts certain activities, they must also be assessed as part of their safety management system.
As can be seen from the conditions to be fulfilled, obtaining a LUC is a complex process and is starting to resemble the operation of an airline.
How is the LUC obtained ?
As part of the procedure, the examination of the documents submitted to the authority starts with an authorisation process. During this process, the authority will review the documents in detail to ensure that they are correct, and may also carry out additional on-site inspections to check that the organisation is technically and procedurally ready. As this is a detailed examination procedure, full certification may take months and requires the full cooperation of the prospective LUC holder, as it may be necessary to amend several documents to fill gaps. It is therefore an iterative process.
If everything has been found to be in order, the LUC certificate will be issued, which may contain restrictions.
It is important to note that the authority is not obliged to grant the rights initially requested immediately, but may acquire them step by step, based on the progress made by the LUC holder and the evolution of the security indicators.
What happens after obtaining the LUC ?
From that moment on, the LUC holder can start his/her activities for the operations for which he/she has been authorised in the LUC.
As LUC operations are already carried out under a “special” category and cannot be carried out immediately, the holder of an LUC has significant administrative obligations which must be fulfilled (obligation to keep the records required by the authority, obligation to carry out risk analyses, etc.).
In accordance with the practice developed in the European Union and endorsed by the European Aviation Safety Agency, the authorities may also link the scope of operations which may be authorised under their own responsibility in the possession of a LUC to a specific risk level (SAIL). This enhances the importance of the risk assessment prior to each operation in the possession of a LUC, since if it results in a SAIL level that exceeds the LUC, the operation in question cannot be authorised by the organisation under its own authority, at least on the basis of the LUC, and a new authorisation for the operation must be requested from the authority.
Based on the outcome of the detailed risk assessment, the responsible manager will make the decision (hence the importance of organisation and authority scrutiny) as to whether or not it can be carried out under the LUC. The only exceptions to this are operations based on standard scenarios, in which case the UAS operator must submit a declaration to the authority.
As indicated above, the authority will inspect organisations holding a LUC on a regular basis as part of its inspection programme. These inspections may be on-site or so-called remote audits, and may be announced in advance or unannounced surprise inspections. On the basis of such audits, the authority will judge whether the organisation is able to fully comply with the restrictions in the LUC and, on the basis of the results of the audits, can progressively expand the range of operations that can be carried out (and lift the restrictions) or, conversely, whether negative results require further tightening of the conditions of use or, if appropriate, the withdrawal of the LUC.