Expanding Commercial Drone Operations into Europe

Senior Director of UAS Ops Consulting at Skyward

Since the rollout of Part 107, many large companies in the United States have seized the opportunity to develop a drone program and integrate UAVs into their workflows. Many of these companies also have a presence in Europe and are now in the beginning phases of expanding their unmanned aircraft programs overseas. This poses significant business opportunities—and challenges.

Regulatory frameworks are changing fast, which creates logistical and compliance challenges for companies operating in multiple jurisdictions. Today, some countries are more drone friendly than others, presenting a lower barrier to entry for businesses. This article reviews the regulations governing commercial drones in the countries with the largest markets for commercial drones.

Remember: Regulations are evolving rapidly in many countries. Be sure to seek out the most up-to-date information directly from the primary source or governing body.

EASA and the Future of Drone Airspace in Europe

As of today, every country has its own unique regulations on drones and aviation, but the European Aviation Safety Society (EASA) has proposed an overarching framework.

Most of the commercial drone market is concentrated in the larger countries: France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. Though Switzerland is geographically smaller than the others, it is home to drone industry leaders like senseFly and Pix4D, as well as the Global Unmanned Traffic Management Association helmed by Skyward co-president Jonathan Evans.

With the exception of the UK, all of these countries will be subject to EASA’s future regulatory plan. Here are the key bullet points of that framework, which is still a “prototype regulation,” best understood as a starting point in the ongoing negotiation of the proper legal use of commercial drones in the European Union.

The legislation proposes three categories of drone operations, each corresponding to a proportionate level of risk:

Open (low risk): “No authorization required to operate the unmanned aircraft outside of restricted and forbidden zones. Operator must comply with safety regulations regarding aircraft mass, product safety requirements, and a “minimum set of operational rules.”

These rules are not dissimilar to those U.S. operators follow under Part 107, especially regarding maximum flight altitude, maximum operating distance, remaining within line of sight, not dropping any objects or animals from the drone, and not flying over people. Drones heavier than 20 kilograms are required to purchase third-party liability insurance.

Specific (medium risk): “Authorization is required by a national aviation authority, following a risk assessment performed by the operator [possibly assisted by a qualified entity].”

The operator must also keep a list of the steps they have taken to mitigate risk. “For certain lower risk scenarios, a simple declaration sent by the operator to the NAA, will be sufficient to start the operation.”

Certified (higher risk): “Requirements are comparable to those for manned aviation. Oversight by NAA (issue of licenses and approval of maintenance, operations, training, ATM/ANS and aerodromes organizations) and by EASA (design and approval of foreign organizations) will be required according to a process similar to manned aviation.”

Only the first two categories, Open and Specific, are covered in theprototype regulation“ published by the EASA. Considering that Europe’s airspace is heavily regulated—as you can see in the view of the Skyward Airspace Map above—it is likely that many commercial operations will fall under the Specific category, which will entail applying for permits from an EASA Member State.

For companies located outside the EASA Member States—say, in the United States—this is where things get a little hazy; remember, these regulations are a prototype. The location of a given operator is defined as “the place where the operational and financial management are located.” If the operator’s location falls outside the EASA, they are considered a Third Company Operator (TCO) and EASA is the “competent authority.” However, in the next sentence, the document states that “the risk assessment need[s] a good knowledge of the environment and the authority of the Member State where the operations are intended is better placed to review the risk assessment. The competent authority is therefore the one of the state of operations.”

Though this section does seem to provide contradictory information, the takeaway is that risk assessment by a Third Company Operator needs to flow through the Member State in which operations will take place.

One more factor to keep in mind is that the final legislation intends to impose a set of regulations on the design, manufacture, and maintenance of drones. Expect specific materials or designs to be prohibited, at least for certain applications.

Even though these regulations are still hypothetical, it’s good news for business that EASA is focused on creating an international set of drone regulations down the road. Now, let’s take a look at the regulations that exist in Western Europe today.

Drone Airspace Regulations in Seven European Countries

Drone Airspace in France

In France, civilian drone operations are divided into three categories: hobby and competition flying, flying for experimental and testing purposes, and “particular activities.” This last category contains commercial applications.

Drones are not allowed to fly in “public areas of urban zones” without express permission from the government, and approval from the owner is required for flying over private property. There is an altitude restriction of 150 meters, or 50 meters when flying above any structure higher than 100 meters. Night flight is prohibited without special permission, and airspace around airports and aerodromes is tightly controlled—operators must observe altitude limits determined by their proximity to either end of a runway. Drones are disallowed near military installations, historical structures, and “certain national parks and national reserves.”

Taking a look at the Skyward Airspace Map, you can see that Paris presents challenges for drone operators. However, in other large cities, such as Bordeaux, Marseille, and Lyon, the airspace is much freer, relatively speaking, and offers good opportunity to companies looking to expand their drone operations. Much of the countryside, with its rich tradition of high-value agriculture, is also open to UAV flight.

German Drone Airspace Is in Flux

The German regulations are currently being debated by the Ministry of Transportation and Digital Infrastructure, so the following information may change soon, perhaps even before the EASA regulations are put in place.

Germany has been relatively forward-thinking in its incorporation of commercial drones, and it shows in its drone airspace rules. In broad strokes, you can obtain a “general authorization” for your drone if it weighs 5 kilograms and will not be flown over:

  • people and public gatherings
  • the scene of an accident or where police/emergency services are operating
  • power plants, prisons, military bases, and other industrial facilities
  • prohibited or flight-restricted areas.

As you might expect, this does make it more difficult for certain use cases in the engineering and energy sectors, but you can always apply for a “specific case-by-case authorization” if your drone is heavier than 5 kilograms or specialize in industrial inspections.

Zooming in on the Skyward Airspace Map, you can see that there’s a lot of red in western Berlin, but the southern and eastern parts of the city are wide open. Frankfurt is almost entirely free of restrictions (except for the southwest, where a strip is carved out for the airport), and all of central Munich is open for drone flight. The same is true of Hamburg and most of Germany’s other large cities.

Commercial Drone Airspace in Italy

Italy requires that drone operators carry third-party insurance, which most big companies have regardless. Other Italian drone laws include: 70 meter altitude limit, 150 meter radius from the operator (or out of line of sight), no flying over populated areas and industrial facilities, 8 kilometer radius of prohibited airspace surrounding aerodromes, daylight-only flight, drones must weigh under 25 kilograms, and the UAV must be 50 meters away from people and property not involved in the operation.

Unfortunately, the major cities in Italy are covered in red. There are some suburbs and exurbs outside of these zones, but given the depressed state of their construction industry, and the laws against flying over populated areas, perhaps the most appropriate use cases for drones in Italy are in the countryside, in the agriculture and mining industries.

Ireland’s Drone-friendly Airspace Comes with a High Barrier to Entry

As you can see, the airspace map of the Emerald Isle is relatively free of red spots, but businesses must overcome a few significant hurdles before they can take advantage of it.

In order to fly commercially in Ireland, an operator must first apply for a permit from the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA). This permit is granted to those who have completed a drone safety course and who have drafted a strong operations manual approved by the IAA. Additionally, drones over 1 kilogram must be registered with the IAA.

As with the other countries I’ve mentioned, there are restrictions on how high (120 meters) and far away (300 meters) you may fly your drone, and restricted airspace around aerodromes (5 kilometer radius), populated areas, military sites, and prisons. Ireland also has laws concerning aerial surveillance of people, and an operator must undertake a Privacy Impact Assessment to ensure that they do not collect images that violate others’ privacy. For more specific information concerning how personal data should be handled, consult this page.

Commercial Drone Regulations in Spain

Along with the United Kingdom, Spain’s laws governing commercial drone use are among the most stringent of those covered in this article. Insurance is mandatory, along with a medical certificate for the operator, and a general operating manual. In addition, the operator must have a pilot license, or be certified by an EASA Approved Training Organization (ATO), which includes 56 hours of education in aviation theory, 4 hours of practice, and a practical flying test.

Additional restrictions apply to drones over 25 kilograms, and only drones under 2 kilograms may be flown out of the operator’s line of sight. The altitude limit is 120 meters, and there is a 500 meter horizontal radius provided that the drone remains visible. Drones may only be operated in non-populated and non-restricted areas.

Large swaths of Barcelona and Madrid present challenges thanks to nearby airports, but that still leaves considerable areas where drone flight is allowed in Spain’s two largest cities. Seville and Valencia, the next most populous cities, are minimally restricted except for large rectangles around their airports.

Swiss Drone Airspace Regulations

As you might expect given the flourishing drone industry there, Switzerland’s laws are relatively permissive of unmanned aviation. You can read the full regulations here, but this is the upshot: Drones weighing less than 30 kilograms do not require approval by the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA), but you must obtain liability insurance of at least 1 million Swiss francs. You cannot fly over a group of people (defined as 24 people or more) and must maintain eye contact with the drone at all times.

Glancing at the Skyward Airspace Map, you see a lot of yellow circles around Zurich, Bern, Geneva, Basel, and other larger cities. For the most part, these do not represent outright prohibitions on drone flights, but an altitude restriction of 150 meters. This is largely to respect the airspace of nearby aerodromes. Some of these areas are outright restrictions (typically a 5 kilometer radius around an airstrip or airport), but drones can fly if you obtain permission from the relevant authorities.

Drone Airspace Regulations in the UK

After a scare or two last year, there has been pressure among Britons to tighten drone laws. Keep in mind: Due to the ongoing Brexit, the UK may not be subject to EASA’s proposed legislation.

Those operating drones weighing over 20 kilograms in a commercial capacity are required to obtain Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) permission, which involves demonstrating knowledge of aviation theory, passing a practical flight assessment, drafting an approved operations manual, and purchasing a suitable insurance policy. The Permission For Aerial Work (PFAW) is valid for 12 months and takes about a month to process. Flying a heavier aircraft in non-segregated airspace is forbidden without express permission from the CAA.

For those operating aircraft under the prescribed weight limit, you must also observe the following guidelines (or be granted a waiver to ignore them):

  • do not endanger any person or property by dropping any article or animal from the drone
  • only fly if the operator is reasonably certain the flight can be completed safely
  • maintain direct eye contact with the aircraft
  • avoid class A, C, D, and E airspace and aerodrome traffic zones (unless one has obtained consent from the appropriate air traffic control)
  • stay under 120 meters in altitude

For full guidance on complying with the law, consult CAP-722, which is intended to assist those who intend to fly drones in UK airspace.

As you might expect, airspace around London is heavily controlled but major cities Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool are much freer in terms of available airspace. Edinburgh in Scotland is criss-crossed with two large rectangles of restricted airspace, but there is still a chunk of the city center that is available for drone flight. Northern Ireland, with the exception of the airports in and around Belfast, is largely free and clear.

Finally, no matter what country you’re operating in, don’t forget to check into local ordinances pertaining to drones before flying, as they can impose additional limits on your operations. To best ensure full concordance with the appropriate governing bodies, it’s a good idea to establish your operations three to six months in advance. You might have to wait through a certification, permit, or waiver process. If you want more information on the specific laws of each country, check out these resources which can point you to the relevant documents.

Download a preview of Skyward's standard operating procedures and checklists for drones