Captain's Table

Mark Austen

2020.01.19 - Certified Drones

Despite Britain leaving the European Union in a few days time, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will sensibly be adopting the European Aircraft Safety Agency (EASA) regulations for drones.

Right now the final regulations are being nailed down but in essence the regulations divide the Open Category airspace in which recreational and many commercial drones fly, into 3 sub-categories. These are A1, A2 & A3 also described as 'flying over uninvolved people', 'flying near uninvolved people' and 'flying far away from uninvolved people'. The term 'people' means 'people, vehicles, vessels and structures' but that is a mouthful to say so generally the term 'people' is used to mean all of these.
The drones are also divided up into 5 classes, C1-C5 but in order to be in one of these classes, the drone needs to be submitted by the manufacturer to and audited by EASA and receive a certification. All other drones are classed as 'Legacy' and unless they weigh under 250g maximum take-off weight are restricted to the A3 sub-category once the regulations come into force on 1st July 2020.

At present, if you want to fly a drone closer to people than allowed for by the 'Drone Code' you need to have a Permission for Commercial Operations from the CAA or PfCO. If you have a PfCO before 1st July 2020 when the new regulations come into effect, then after that date you can still fly the un-classed, legacy drones in exactly the same way as before. It is, in effect, grandfathering the legacy drones you personally use and as long as you keep your PfCO current by resubmitting your Operations Manual to the CAA each year for auditing and pay the annual fee, then your personal grandfathering will continue.

As at this moment in time, there are no certified drones on the market.

Repeated emails to the major drone manufacturers by concerned pilots asking whether they either intend to submit their current drones for certification or will be building certified drones in the near future has resulted in silence. Not a single reply has been received as far as we can gather from any inquiry on this subject.

There are two main conclusions we can draw from this, one worrying and the other not.

The worrying one is that none of the manufacturers are going to certify their drones. What will happen in Europe in this case remains to be seem. There is a two year transitional period until 1st July 2022 during which time legacy drones may still be used in A1 and A2 sub-categories under certain restricted circumstances but after that drones can only be used in the A3 sub-category.

The other main conclusion is that the drone manufacturers are paying their cards very close to their collective chests. All but one of the major drone producers are Chinese and one of the concepts that non-Chinese people do not really understand is the concept of 'face'.

Here is my take on the situation.

DJI has been the leading and major manufacturer of drones for a number of years until a few days ago when Autel Robotics, a Chinese-owned American company, launched the EVO II which, according to many reviewers, is the 'best prosumer drone on the market'. This was a loss of face to DJI and there are reports of many emergency high-level meetings in DJI headquarters when the features of the EVO II were leaked to the public during the FAA certification application a few months ago. DJI, apparently, does not have a drone that they can bring to the market quickly in order to challenge the new leader.

Now, if DJI were to modify their leading drones to be able to certify them for use in Europe, and it is my opinion that this would mainly consist of software changes to the drone and controller, then this would have the effect of putting the DJI drones back at the top. So DJI may be trying to get this done without anyone being the wiser until their announcement.

Autel Robotics may also be doing the same with either the intention of announcing it first, thus relegating DJI to playing catch-up or to have the announcement ready so that the day after the DJI announcement, when the DJI staff are all congratulating themselves for knocking Autel off the top, the same announcement puts Autel back at the top.

Both of these would have DJI suffering loss of face but which of the two possibilities is the greater loss of face? Autel announcing first or immediately after?

I'd guess that it is the latter but this is something only the Chinese could answer.

Still, my way forward in now quite clear. I wish to be able to take photos and videos from a drone close to boats and people on horses (suitably desensitised to the drone noise) and in order to do that I need to get a PfCO before 1st July so that once the EASA regulations come into force, I can still use my current drones. Fortunately for me, the leading PfCO course supplier is not only offering their two-day course plus flight test and operations manual for half-price but will also give you the EASA A2 Certificate of Competence (A2 C of C) course and test for free.

A bargain.