We all know the problem, you have a drone and you fly it around where and when possible. But then suddenly you decide to go on holiday and … oops … can I fly my drone on holiday? Good question! Now for some destinations, this answer is simple … for example Cuba? NO! Don’t even think about taking your drone there, customs will confiscate it and you’ll never see it again! North Korea… do I even need to explain this? Singapore? Follow the basic rules and you’ll be fine.
But then there is Europe … how about Europe? Europe can hardly be called a country … it’s just a geographical continent … nothing more and nothing less. The European Union however is a different story, it’s an organized collaboration of several countries that are located in the same continent on a political level. Now to understand Europe I suggest you read books and articles about it, I could write pages about this subject but that’s not the point, however, I need to explain the situation before 2021 for you to understand this new law about drones.
In the old times:
A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle so basically, a model airplane can be called a drone as well … and that is the problem actually. In the old situation every country in Europe … and that’s a lot of different countries … had its own law. In Belgium for example you could buy a drone and fly over your own property at a maximum altitude of 40 meters, you had to follow training that would set you back about 3000 euro and then you could fly in designated model airplane fields for the time that the field was opened and you had to follow the same rules as all the other model airplane pilots … this model airplane pilot license was by the way different than a drone license … for any other public location, you needed permission from … who knows? So basically a newcomer to drones could buy a basic drone for let’s just say 250 euro and then he or she had to follow a course for 3000 euro to get a Belgian license to fly in Belgium … over your own property. Britain had other rules and regulations, the Netherlands, France, Germany etc. were no different and the biggest issue was that no country actually accepted each others licenses! So if you wanted to go on holiday and fly your drone, you needed a local license first. Ridiculous right?
The new law of January 1st 2021!
Luckily after about a decade of discussions, the European leaders finally agreed on a European drone law … it’s about time! So now there some basic rules and some more detailed regulations.
First of all the new legislation counts in the entire European Union and is accepted by some more countries like the UK. The basic rules are as follows:
- You have to stay below 120 meters of altitude.
- You always have to fly within the line of sight, so in the basic regulations the FPV drones are not allowed (more about this later).
- You can’t fly in aviation zones without permission.
- Flying a drone is only allowed from ages 14 and above.
- You have to follow a training to get a certificate (in Belgium this is a free online training that only takes about 2 to 3 hours).
- Your drone needs to be registered.
- You need a basic insurance.
Permission in aviation zones? Well, there‘s your first problem, a lot of spaces in the densely populated areas in Europe fall under the responsibility of Air Traffic Control, mostly civil airports and military airbases. For these zones there is still some flying possible but you need permission, in most cases you can just register online and apply for permission through an online application, usually, the altitude for flying drones in these areas is limited to 45 meters or 150 feet. This website – https://www.eurocontrol.int/tool/uas-no-fly-areas-directory-information-resources – combines all the drone guide maps of the countries involved, every country has developed its own application to ask permission, some are better to understand than other though.
Categories! When you fly anything from a toy drone to high-end consumer drones or custom drones up to 25 kilos, you don’t transport goods or people and you fly VLOS (Visual Line of Sight), you are flying in the so-called “OPEN” category either in A1, A2 or A3 depending on weight etc. So in this category, you will find all so called “Low Risk” drones, as you can see … not a word about FPV.
Most people flying a drone to take photos or video will be flying in this category of course. However, some people will likely fly in First Person View by the aid of goggles like the DJI FPV drone. This poses a problem in the European legislation, these drones are not included in the relatively easy “open” category as these drones are classified as “Elevated Risk” drones. This brings us to the second category which is called the “SPECIFIC” category.
The ”SPECIFIC” category isn’t that much of a difference from the “OPEN” category, however there is an extra requirement, you need to pass a practical test and you have to get a document of one of the following types: a declaration, a permit or a certificate, all 3 types can be obtained from a European government (for Belgium you can follow this link: https://mobilit.belgium.be/nl/luchtvaart/drones/nieuwe_regelgeving/categorie_specific). The certificate in this category is not provided directly online by the governments, instead you need to follow the practical course and test at a certified training facility.
For FPV flights you would think it’s a mess of paperwork before you can actually fly your drone, however, there is an easy way out of the paperwork once you have passed your test and that is just to fly with an observer next to you, basically, the pilot needs to fly the drone and the observer (also in possession of at least a certificate in the “OPEN” category) stands next to the pilot in order to keep a visual on the drone, either by eye or binoculars. This way the drone is basically flying VLOS anyway. One more thing worth mentioning is that in the “SPECIFIC” category, you‘re allowed to transport and drop goods, fly higher than 120 meters and over crowds of people as well.
I should say there is a third category but don’t get your hopes up! This one is really complicated, it is the most difficult one of them all and covers drone flight in the ‘high risk’ section, this can mean many things but usually, it’s about the transport of people, the transport of dangerous goods or extra large drones over 25 kilo and/or large drones of 3-meter wingspans and more … just in case you have a military type jet drone hidden in your shed somewhere. This category license needs to be obtained through certified drone training facilities and get the approval of the local government agency.
Just to see where all these regulations come from, it does make sense to know that this comes from EASA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, sort of a European IATA you could say. Since drones fly in the air, it seems logical that EASA is involved, and to be honest, it feels more and more like you‘re treated like a pilot when you have a drone license (link to EASA: https://www.easa.europa.eu/domains/civil-drones-rpas).
Now what to do when you come from outside of Europe?
For most standard consumer drones like DJI Spark, DJI Mavic, DJI Phantom etc., there isn’t a big problem. Most of you guys will fly under the “OPEN” category anyway, this makes it pretty easy to get a license (this link will explain every detail: https://www.easa.europa.eu/domains/civil-drones-rpas/open-category-civil-drones). Unfortunately, there is no shared agreement between EASA and other authorities in the world, so anyone not having European citizenship will need to follow the training trough a European system before they are allowed to fly any drone in the European Union (beware that the Shengen zone is not the same as the European Union, in aviation law, we follow European Union, NOT Shengen). First of all you need to register for online training and exam to get your license, for European citizens this is easy to do through a government portal, they just need to log in with their national ID, however, foreigners need to apply for access first (here is the list of official government agencies by country: https://www.easa.europa.eu/domains/civil-drones/naa). Just fill in the application form, then you will get a login and password, after which you can start you online training and pass the exam, beware to follow every detail closely and familiarise yourself with aviation terms as much as possible. Once you have done the exam and have a score of 75% or higher, you will be able to download your certificate.
There, now you‘re ready to fly your drone in Europe! I do recommend to print your license in high quality on a small paper size like A5 or so and laminate it so you can always show it to the proper authorities as they are now checking more and more. Before you plan any flight, check the drone guide map first and see if you need to apply for a permit first, this is usually very easy to get online.