The UK's ability to successfully export – and import – drone technology relies on our aviation safety regulators staying as closely aligned with the EU as possible, Royal Aeronautical Society UAV committee chairman Tony Henley told The Register.
Reversing the UK's membership of the European Aerospace Safety Agency (EASA) would be too complicated in the short term, he said, rejecting the notion that by leaving EASA the UK could create a freer regulatory environment enabling greater experimentation with new technology.
"The [UK's Civil Aviation Authority, the CAA] hasn't got the capacity or the expertise to provide an effective standalone aviation regulatory organisation. It did have, 20 years ago, but we've sacked three quarters of the people. And the expertise... has gone to join EASA," he told The Register.
If post-Brexit British aviation regulations do not align closely to the EU's, Henley said, British-certified drones and other aircraft will face tedious paperwork challenges in order to be allowed to fly abroad.
"As soon as you fly outside the country," he said, "you've got to conform to international regulations, which means EASA or the US Federal Aviation Administration. Brazil and Canada do their own thing but in order to get them to fly, they need to be recognised by EASA or the FAA. If EASA gives you a certificate you can fly anywhere in Europe. Technically you need [separate] approval to go to the States but they tend to rubber-stamp it and we rubber-stamp theirs."
For drones the cross-Atlantic differences are even wider. "Europe and the US are not on the same page, and the US hasn't got anything like the open, specific and certified vision of unmanned aircraft, whereas the UK has, though it uses different terms. There is scope there for people to go and do their own thing until they want to use it across borders – say, to do a survey in France."
Even remaining a member of EASA might be fraught with difficulty, Henley warned. "What most people would like in post-Brexit Britain, but I'm not sure is possible, is that we remain a full member of EASA. But as EASA is an EU agency that may not happen."
He did note that non-EU countries such as Norway and Switzerland are currently members, but added: "It's certainly not clear cut that we're going to leave EASA, and there's a suspicion we may get forced to leave."
EASA itself boasts 34 countries as members, against the EU's 28 member states. This will be one of the topics that the new Conservative government will have to deal with during its two-year negotiation period with the EU. It is expected that Britain will formally leave the bloc in March 2019.
New EU drone regulations
Matters are already coming to a head over regulating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). A few days ago EASA published a proposal that would see it taking on regulatory competence for drones – thus taking it away from national aviation regulators such as the CAA. We understand that the drone industry is keen on this move in the name of cross-border harmonisation of standards.
"Before we leave the EU we will automatically adopt the EU rules," said Henley. "There won't be any choice because the reality is they're going to push them out before that. It seems very likely that the UK CAA, unless someone tells them otherwise, would logically adopt the EASA baseline. Which is not a big issue because there's a lot of commonality."
Henley explained that the new EU drone regs will be based around three core categories: open; specific; and certified. "The broad thrust is very similar to what the CAA has today for [aircraft] below 150kg."
In summary, the open category covers drones that "require little regulation [and] little or no airworthiness approval because what you're doing is inherently not dangerous". This will cover drone operations in "low density airspace" that is not over large numbers of people and takes place not more than 120 metres above ground.
The specific category is for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations and, as Henley put it, missions "that are dangerous, for example photographing a crowd or urban area". Operators will need to put forward a safety case, he said, something which the CAA already implements domestically. "It allows a huge range of operations that can be done with small and medium remotely piloted air systems," enthused Henley.
"EASA is proposing standard scenarios, standard operations. If you fit in one of those you don't have to do the safety case; you fit in that category and you get an approval. I think that's really good," he added.
Certification, meanwhile, more or less mirrors the existing processes for manned aircraft.
The EU Notice of Proposed Amendment was written in conjunction with the drone industry, among others, and it seems unlikely to change from its published format. It will be submitted to the EU Commission for rubber-stamping into law at the end of this year. ®