The first recorded use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) appears to have taken place in 1839, when Austrian soldiers attacked the city of Venice with unmanned balloons filled with explosives.

Almost exactly a century later in 1939, Englishman Reginald Denny’s OQ-2 Radioplane became the first mass-produced UAV, or drone, in the US. Fast-forward six decades, and the CIA deployed an unmanned drone in a targeted killing for the first time, in Afghanistan’s Paktia province in 2002.

This potted history illustrates just how far UAV technology in the military sphere has evolved, but equally striking is the explosion in civilian drone use for both business and recreation. According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forecasts, seven million drones are expected to have been sold in the US by 2020 – yet, at present, only an estimated 1.3 million are registered with the FAA.

In Europe, legislation governing the use of drones, particularly in and around commercial airspace, has arguably struggled to keep pace with the surge in their popularity – and the stakes are high.

In December 2018, two unauthorised UAVs sighted near London’s Gatwick Airport forced the authorities there to ground aircraft for 36 hours, causing chaos for more than 140,000 commercial and business passengers, and costing the airport’s partners and stakeholders an estimated £50m.

Identity parade: e-identification and geo-fencing

The European Commission (EC) has responded by adopting EU rules to ensure that increasing drone traffic is safe and secure on the ground and in the air. The rules will replace existing national laws in EU member states, and apply to both professional operators and those flying drones for leisure.

“The rules will replace existing national laws in EU member states, and apply to professional operators and those flying drones for leisure.”

“The EU will now have the most advanced rules worldwide – this will pave the way for safe, secure and green drone flights,” stated EC Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc. “It also provides the much needed clarity for the business sector and for drone innovators Europe-wide.”

As of 2020, drone operators will be required to register with national authorities. In principle, the rules will apply to all drones regardless of weight; however, the EC expects the majority of these to be mass-produced UAVs, which merely need to be registered and include electronic identification.

An example of an e-identification solution is Belgian company Unifly’s BLIP. When the device senses vertical motion, it sends tracking data wirelessly to an unmanned traffic management (UTM) system, and also broadcasts the drone’s e-identification, 3D location and take-off position using Bluetooth.

Alternatively, ‘geo-fencing’ uses GPS or radio frequency identification (RFID) to define geographical boundaries and help prevent drones from flying near sensitive locations such as airports and power plants. Chinese company DJI recently updated its geo-fencing technology in 32 European countries.

Risky business: the new EU drone regulations explained

Under the newly adopted EU rules, operators of drones weighing less than 25kg will be able to fly them without prior permission under certain conditions; for example, the drone must not exceed an altitude of 120m, and the operator must keep it in his/her visual line of sight and away from people.

‘Rules for safe drone operations in the EU’ guidelines define three distinct risk levels, beginning with low-risk ‘open operations’. Categorised as drones (up to 25kg) used for photography and filming purposes, or industrial operations – for example, a farmer using a drone to survey his/her own property – this type of usage is governed by the drone’s product safety rules enforceable by police.

“As of 2020, drone operators will be required to register with national authorities.”

‘Specific operations’ refers to drones used for mailing, infrastructure inspections, and commercial or industrial operations – such as the filming of sports events – which all require authorisation. Drone operators must perform a risk appraisal according to the specific operations risk assessment (SORA) methodology or an alternative accepted by the National Aviation Authorities. Operators of larger drones can also ensure certification via the Light Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate, or LUC.

Finally, the highest-risk category is ‘certified operations’ – referred to as ‘traditional risk’ – and covers the use of delivery or passenger drones, or UAVs flying over large bodies of people.

The new EU laws also include privacy provisions; for example, drone owners with sensors that can capture personal data must be registered to operate the craft (with the exception of toy drones).

Future proof: timelines and implementation

Published on 11 June, the common European rules on drones, Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/945 and Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947, are designed to replace the current fragmented regulatory framework with coherent, uniform guidelines. Will they succeed?

At first glance, the new common rules will make operating drones commercially and recreationally across European borders easier and safer. As the EU Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) points out, the requirement that drones be registered and individually identifiable will both reduce the likelihood of another major incident like the one at Gatwick in 2018, and make it much easier to trace the owner.

However, while the common rules replace existing national regulations in individual EU countries, member states will also be able to define so-called ‘no-fly zones’ (these may include airports and airfields, or city centres) where, through satellite geo-location, drones will not be permitted to enter, as well as areas where UAVs are allowed more freedom, such as beyond line of sight (BVLOS) flights.

“Member states will be able to define so-called ‘no-fly zones’ where drones will not be permitted to enter.”

EASA plans to publish guidance material and a proposal for two “standard scenarios” later this year to help drone operators comply with the adopted rules. Towards the end of 2019, EASA will make a proposal to the EC for U-space service regulation to enable complex drone operations with a high degree of automation.

Stakeholders will be given the opportunity to discuss the new rules and the upcoming regulatory proposal during the next High Level Conference on Drones on 5-6 December, which takes place during Amsterdam Drone Week.

A full 180 years after Austrian soldiers first experimented with UAVs over Venice, the event will bring together regulatory bodies and industry experts from around the world to discuss what could be the next significant stage in the evolution of the technology – a common European market for drones.

Describing the new guidelines, Patrick Ky, executive director of EASA, stated: “Europe will be the first region in the world to have a comprehensive set of rules ensuring safe, secure and sustainable operations of drones – both for commercial and leisure activities. Common rules will help foster investment, innovation and growth in this promising sector.”