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Drones. New UAS Regulation coming into force 31 Dec 2020: Key take-aways.


The EU drone, or UAS unmanned aircraft system, regulation is coming into force on 31st of December 2020.

There is no distinction between commercial operations (PfCO in the UK) and recreational users. Instead, the regulation essentially considers the operation’s risk profile and the drone characteristics, regardless of the operation’s commercial nature or not.

3 categories of operations are defined. They are called Open / Specific / Certified depending on the level of operational risk.

The Open Category covers low-risk operations that will not require any authorisation but will be subject to strict operational limitations. Typically, recreational users will fly within the Open category requirements. Probably a good portion of professional activities could also belong to the Open category.

The Open Category’s key restrictions are:

  • Maximum mass of 25kg

  • Flight in Visual line of sight only “VLOS”

  • Maximum height of 120m/400ft

  • Accessible only with drones with CE marking after January 2023

  • In 2021 and 2022, existing drones, or legacy products, can also fly in the Open category, but restrictions apply (details below)

  • No dangerous goods carried, no dropping of material

The Open category, or low risk category, is sub-divided into 3 subcategories A1, A2, and A3 depending on proximity to people, ie risk of incident. A1 and A2 subcategories open the possibility of recreational flying in urban areas, with the appropriate drone and pilot competency.

Each Open sub-category is paired with CE class of drones (C0, C1, C2, C3, C4) so that the drone characteristics and safety features are adequate for its matching operational Open subcategory. It will be up to manufacturers to develop products meeting the CE marking requirements, to be widely distributed on the market.

All drone operators/owners must register themselves unless:

  • the drone is a toy, or

  • the drone weighs less than 250g and has no camera onboard.

  • Currently in the UK drones < 250g do not trigger registration. Next year, owners of DJI Mavic Mini for example (249g with a camera) will have to register themselves.

Standard permission for commercial operations PfCO in the UK will remain valid until their term. There is no overnight impact on 31st December 2020.

Upon renewal, a PfCO holder can select to remain in the Specific Category. Terminology will change, they will apply for an operational authorisation PDRAUK01 (details below) that will take over the requirements and privileges of the current standard permission.

Alternatively, they can determine that they don’t need to maintain an approval for the Specific category with an Operations Manual, training, fluency requirements, fees, and prefer to fly within the boundaries .


« Open » category

Operations in the Open category present the lowest risk. They are not subject to any prior authorisation, nor to an operational declaration by the UAS operator before the operation takes place.

The Open Category’s key restrictions are:

  • Maximum mass of 25kg

  • Flight in Visual line of sight only “VLOS”

  • Maximum height of 120m 400ft

  • Accessible only with drones with CE marking after January 2023

  • In 2021 and 2022, existing drones, or legacy products, can also fly in the Open category, but restrictions apply (details below)

  • No dangerous goods carried, no dropping of material

Open sub-categories

Three sub-categories have been defined to adapt requirements to level of ground-risk of injury to uninvolved people:

  • Open A1: Urban area, Fly over uninvolved people but not over crowds

  • Open A2: Urban area, Fly close to people but at safe distance and not over them

  • Open A3: Non-urban area, fly far from people

« Specific » category

The specific category refers to operations that are neither "open" nor "certified". These operations will require either prior authorisation from the competent authorities based on a thorough risk assessment and mitigation plan, or a prior declaration to the extent that these operations meet criteria of pre-determined standard scenarios STS.

« Certified » category

Considering the level of risk of damage to property and/or people, safety requirements are similar to manned aviation; Operations in the certified category should, as a principle, be subject to rules on certification of the aircraft, certification of the operator, licensing. The following operations will be classified as “certified”:

  • flying over assemblies of people

  • transporting people

  • carrying dangerous goods that may result in high risk for third parties in case of accident.

CE Marking by classes of UAS in the open category

A major benefit of the EU regulation is the introduction of product standards for drones that can be used in each Open subcategory, and the well-known CE marking approval process.

Currently 5 classes of drones have been specified: Class C0, C1, C2, C3 and C4. In each class, product technical specifications are defined to adequately mitigate the risk of the corresponding Open subcategory of operations. These technical specifications are the requirements that manufacturers must meet in order to receive CE marking for their class of UAS and distribute their products on the EU market.


The new regulation opens new possibilities, as long as the UAS has CE marking … What happens with legacy products, or products that are put on the market after 31 December 2020 but without CE marking? Manufacturers will probably need time to comply with the technical requirements and get their CE marking approval.

A transition period has been defined as follows:

  • Legacy products can be operated indefinitely in subcategory A3 Fly far from people and far from urban areas

  • Until 1 January 2023, legacy products can be flown:

    • In subcategory A1 urban areas, Fly occasionally over people but not over crowds: OK if mass < 500g and the remote pilot competency is equivalent to that required in A1, which is essentially to read the user manual. Too permissive considering that the generally accepted harmless threshold is 250g? The CAA may be of that opinion, as it seems that they will require an A2 Certificate of Competence Theoretical test.

    • In subcategory A2 Urban areas, Fly Close to people: OK if minimum horizontal safety distance from uninvolved people is 50m, if mass < 2kg (DJI Mavic ~800g, DJI Phantom ~1.4kg for example), and the remote pilot competency is equivalent to that required in A2, i.e. A2 Certificate of Competence Theoretical test.

Presumably, occasional recreational drone users will not pass the A2 CofC and will be authorised to fly with their legacy products in A3, away from people and urban areas. This is similar to their current authorised envelope. The Drone Code states 50m minimum horizontal distance from people, and 150m minimum from built-up areas ie towns, estates, industrial and business parks – with drones of up to 20kg.

Active recreational users could pass the A2 CofC to broaden their perimeter to urban areas – although the no fly zones and sensitive zones on the geo-awareness map will limit options too.

Professional PfCO holders should benefit of their permission/authorisation’s umbrella to operate with their existing fleet (see below). They have received training both theoretical and practical that exceed the A2 CofC.

From 1 January 2023, UAS placed on the market must comply with the product standard of a class of UAS, otherwise they cannot be flown in the Open category, ie they must be flown in the Specific or Certified categories.

The Specific category and the evolution of the “PfCO”

The simplest description of a Specific category operation is that it is a UAS operation ‘that cannot be done within the Open category but is not complicated enough for the certified category’.

3 options to apply for an Operational Authorisation:

• application based on a risk assessment completed by the UAS operator and similar to an Operating Safety Case

• application based on a Pre-Defined Risk Assessments (PDRA). The CAA/EASA will carry out the risk assessment themselves and will publish, as an acceptable means of compliance to the drone regulation, a standard set of requirements that the UAS operator must provide in its application for Operational authorisation. In the UK, the CAA will publish UKPDRA01 as part of CAP722 to convert the existing standard permission PfCO into the new regulation.

• application based on a Standard Scenarios (STS) defined by EASA where, for relatively simple specific operations, EASA will have pre-assessed operating procedures. A simple declaration, rather than operational authorisation, will be required. For the time being, the CAA will not be implementing STS and will require an operational authorisation in the Specific category.


The EU regulation mainly addresses the ground risk that a UAS may hurt people on the ground.

In terms of air-based risk of collision, all flights in the Open category must be below 120m. Otherwise, the regulation does not directly mention airspace limitations such as distance from aerodromes. Instead, it introduces the notion of UAS geographical zones that are defined by each Member State for safety, security, privacy or environmental reasons, and where UAS operations may be restricted or prohibited. These would typically encompass No Fly Zones near aerodromes, prisons, sensitive sites, and de facto restrict the areas where the Open category applies.


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