On Thursday 28 February 2019 the EU agreed new rules for the operation of unmanned aircraft, including model aircraft (with the exception of indoor flying). These rules allow each EU Member State to choose to continue its current national rules for the operation of model aircraft without any major changes by providing a national authorisation for activities in the framework of model aircraft clubs and associations. The EU rules thus allow current national rules for aeromodelling to continue to apply, but that choice needs to be made at the national level by the authorities of each EU Member State. Without such national authorisation, pilots will fly under the EU-wide rules for unmanned aircraft under the “open category”. These rules contain a range of severe restrictions. The new EU rules are scheduled be published on 1 June 2019 and apply from 1 June 2020.
Follow the links for the full text of the Commission Implementing Regulation on the rules and procedures for the operation of unmanned aircraft and its Annex. Please note that these are the drafts, not the final edited versions of the new legislation, and thus still contain a number of mistakes. There will however be no substantive changes in the final version scheduled to be published in June.
During the discussions on the draft rules a number of European model aircraft associations (including the Swiss Aeromodelling Federation (SMV), whom the author advises), worked hard to obtain a liberal set of EU-wide rules for the operation of model aircraft. Unfortunately, already early on in the negotiations it became clear that the vast majority of EU Member States as well as the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) were aiming for a strict set of rules, including a 120m height limitation and training and examination requirements. It was also clear that these rules would not be taking into account the requirements of aeromodelling and there was no support for an EU-wide liberal regime for aeromodelling. Pressure from the European Parliament however led to Member States and EASA opening up to a separate exemption to allow model aircraft activities in the context of clubs and associations to continue under existing national rules, in view of their solid safety record.
Over the last few months the model aircraft associations managed to achieve important changes to the draft rules to accommodate our concerns. The so called “open category” rules, albeit still very restrictive, were somewhat softened to accommodate slope soaring. More importantly, the exemption for model aircraft activities in the framework of clubs and associations was significantly broadened. The result is that this exemption now enables each country, when applying the legislation, to choose to continue its current rules for the operation of model aircraft without major changes. Whether and the extent to this will be the case is now up to the national authorities.
The SMV is already in contact with the Swiss authorities (the Federal office for Civil Aviation – FOCA) and working with them to help ensure that the current liberal regime will remain in place without any major changes in the future. Similar preparatory work is also ongoing in a number of EU Member States.
The exemption for “activities in the framework of model aircraft clubs and associations”
The exemption for “activities in the framework of model aircraft clubs and associations” (Article 16) allows national authorities, upon request of a model club or association, to issue an authorisation that sets the conditions for the operation of model aircraft in the framework of those clubs and associations. Such authorisation can be decided on the basis of national rules. The only EU requirement is that all model aircraft pilots operating models heavier than 250 gr will need to be registered in a national registry, that is connected with registries throughout the EU. Importantly, the rules now allow model aircraft clubs and associations fulfill this requirement on behalf of their members. That means that members can thus automatically obtain a registration through their club or association, thus avoiding an extra burden for their members. This registration is valid throughout the EU, no further registration is needed if a pilot wants to fly in another EU country. The registration number will need to be displayed on the model aircraft (Size and location are likely to be subject to further guidance from EASA).
The legislation does not prescribe any further requirements or restrictions to the operation of model aircraft under this authorisation. That means that national authorities can decide to continue the current national rules under the authorisation.
A further important point is the scope of “activities in the framework of clubs and associations”. Model aircraft clubs and associations must ensure that authorisation at the very least applies to all their members and guest pilots. They should also ensure that it applies not only to flying at recognised airfields, but at all locations where their members can currently fly their models. Model aircraft clubs and associations should also explore whether they wish to pursue an application of the authorisation to pilots that are not members or guests.
The rules for activities outside the framework of model clubs and associations (the “open category”)
The new rules will have a major impact on activities outside the framework of model clubs and associations, or for countries that choose not to exempt such activities from the rules. The rules for this so-called “open category” were mostly written for typical “drones” and not model aircraft. Nonetheless, a number of our concerns were taken on board. As a result, these open category rules do provide an opportunity for model aircraft pilots in EU Member States that currently have a very restrictive regime in place. However, for countries that currently have a liberal regime for the operation of model aircraft (such as Switzerland and Germany), flying under the open category would be a serious (and to many unacceptable) restriction and all efforts should be made to continue the current regime under the authorisation discussed above.
The open category requirements are highly complex and depend on the weight of the aircraft and the location where it is flown. In summary, this includes the following requirements:
- A weight limit of 25 kg;
- Flying in visual line of sight only, flown at a safe distance from people and not over assemblies of people;
- A maximum distance of 120 meters from the closest point of the surface of the earth or, thanks to our efforts, a height limit of 120 meters above the pilot for sailplanes up to a maximum of 10 kg (allowing for a limited form of slope soaring under the open category);
- A minimum age requirement of 16 years, which a country can choose to reduce to 12 years, with the possibility for younger persons to fly under the supervision of a pilot of at least 16 years old;
- All pilots flying unmanned aircraft weighing more than 250 gr need to be registered and the registration number must be displayed on aircraft;
- All pilots will need to complete an online theoretical knowledge training course and pass an online examination (valid for five years).
Moreover, the EU is putting into place a series of requirements for the certification and sale of unmanned aircraft. These will however not be applicable to model aircraft that are “privately built” (defined as “assembled or manufactured for the builder’s own use, not including UAS assembled from sets of parts placed on the market as a single ready-to-assemble kit”).
Timeline for the application of the new rules
The new rules are expected to be published in the Official Journal of the European Union on 1 June 2019. They will apply from 1 June 2020, which includes the registration obligation. The authorisation to continue to fly in the framework of clubs and associations will need to be provided by the middle of 2022. Until then we can continue to fly under the current national legislation.
Switzerland, not being a member of the EU, is expected to apply the rules by 2020. The precise date for that will be set through the implementation process for Switzerland.
What do we need to do now?
Now that the new EU legislation has been agreed, the work moves back to the national level. Model aircraft clubs and associations in each EU Member State that wish to have an authorisation with more flexible rules for model aircraft operations must prepare to apply for such authorisation. To do so, it is recommended that these clubs and associations work closely together at the national level to produce a common list of points they want to achieve in the negotiations with their authorities. Moreover, it is strongly recommended that clubs and associations seek contact with their authorities as soon as possible to start laying the ground for an authorisation that meets their needs. In this context, it is also helpful for your clubs and associations to exchange information at the European level. As model aircraft clubs and associations in most EU Member States will be tackling with the same issues over the next few years, we can learn from and assist each other in achieving the most liberal regime possible at the national level. Such exchange can for instance take place through the European Model Flying Union (EMFU).
It’s important to underline that the implementation deadlines in the new legislation require that authorisations for clubs and associations must be given within three years after the entry into force of the new legislation (i.e. by 1 June 2022 at the latest). If no national authorisation is given, then all model aircraft flying will automatically fall under the “open category” rules summarised above. Also important to underline is that the deadline for the implementation of the registration requirement is even shorter, by 1 June 2020. That means that if clubs and associations want to register their members on their behalf, rather than requiring each member to register himself, the modalities for such registration must be agreed with the national authorities before 1 June 2020.
The author, Jürgen Lefevere, is a model aircraft pilot with a passion for large scale gliders. He is also a lawyer with more than 25 years’ experience in the area of EU law and has lectured at universities throughout Europe. Jürgen is an EU official, worked for the European Commission from 2003 until 2014 and is now on unpaid sabbatical leave. Since the middle of 2017 he has acted as a legal adviser for the Swiss Aeromodelling Federation (SMV), which is also working with several other aeromodelling associations in EU Member States on their input in the EU regulatory process. This contribution does not represent the views of any of the EU institutions, or the SMV. The author is not responsible for possible errors in the analysis