Beginning on the first day of 2024, drone operators in Europe are going to need to fly a drone with a special class identification label if they want to fly for most types of use cases — and that includes flying for hobby or leisure purposes too.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in 2019 published a comprehensive set of rules that address both technical and operational requirements for drones. The rules created a complicated set of categories for drone operations, some of which have sub-categories.
Then, there are various deadlines as the new rules roll out. Between now and Dec. 31, 2023, drone pilots can operate any sort of drone, as long as it weighs under 25 kilograms (~55 pounds) and they’re flying in the open category, which means most leisure drone flights and some low-risk commercial flights.
But come Jan. 1, 2024, a lot of things are set to change in terms of the actual drone you can fly, even for hobby purposes in your own backyard. Drones flown in the Open category, which is most leisure drone flights, must have what’s called a C0 to C4 class identification label (though there’s an exception for drones that were privately built or drones purchased before Dec. 31, 2023).
Drone manufacturers are seeking to get a class identification label for their products
2024 might feel far away, but many drone companies are seeking to get their drones certified with those class identification labels now, which then makes it possible for pilots to buy and use those drones come 2024 and on.
The first drone to get a class identification label: the DJI Mavic 3
In August 2022 came the first certification of a drone, and subsequent granting of a class identification label.
TÜV Rheinland, which is an official ‘Notified Body’ allowed to certify drones for classification according to the requirements of the new EASA regulations in August granted the world’s first certification for a drone in accordance with the new EU regulations. That certification went to DJI, specifically for its Mavic 3 drone.
The TÜV Rheinland certification means the Mavic 3 drone is now in compliance with the drone class C1 requirements. To be certified as a Class C1 system, the drone must have features including a remote identification system, a reliable data link, and a data interface for a geo-awareness system to comply with airspace limitations.
Some other additional mandatory changes to the Mavic 3 under European Drone Regulation will kick in, becoming activated whenever any C1-certified DJI Mavic 3 is flown in the European Economic Area:
- Meeting a new noise reduction level of 83db.
- When the ActiveTrack Intelligent Flight Mode is used to film people or objects, the distance from the person/object will be limited to 50 m. Beyond 50 m, ActiveTrack will be disabled.
- The Auxiliary LEDs will be turned on or off automatically during use, based on the actual environment.
- The LEDs at the front arms of the drone will blink by default for the duration of the UAV being powered on.
SenseFly follows with C2 labels
DJI was the first, but it didn’t take long for other drone makers to follow. A week after the DJI news, three more drones received class identification labels for operations in the European Economic Area — all from senseFly, which is an AgEagle company.
senseFly announced in late August that its eBee X, eBee Geo, and eBee Ag fixed-wing commercial drones received C2 class identification label in accordance with EASA regulations. That means drone operators flying C2-labeled eBee drones will be able to conduct missions in the “Open” category in a certification provided by NavCert, which was as appointed as a ‘notified body’ for mandatory UAS certification by Germany earlier this year. All eBee X, eBee Ag, and eBee Geo drones shipped directly from senseFly beginning September 2022 and on will automatically come with that C2 label at no extra cost (existing eBee users will likely need to request the label).
Why C1 certification is big deal for DJI and its DJI Mavic 3 drone
What does that mean for the DJI Mavic 3? In short, it unlocks a lot of possibilities for use cases. Now, the DJI Mavic 3 (and any future drones that get that C1 certification) can now fly in the open A1 category (more on that later) without needing any sort of extra permit, as was otherwise the case prior to certification.
Another reason why it’s ideal that DJI got C1 certification for its Mavic 3 drone? Pilots of certified C1 drones do not need to hold a certificate of remote pilot competency to fly in sub category A1, nor do they adhere to a lot of other restrictions like needing to maintain a minimum distance of 50-meters from people.
“Users can fly in the new A1 Open Category and will no longer have to pass the complex and costly A2 “Remote Piloting License” exam,” according to a statement from DJI. “They will have more freedom to fly in environments they have been restricted from without the C1 certificate – unless obtaining special permission after an additional lengthy administrative process.”
That ‘costly exam’ refers to the A1/A3 “Proof of Competence” basic drone certificate, which is still otherwise needed for all other drones weighing 250 grams or more.
The certification applies to all newly-purchased Mavic 3 drones from here on out, as well as previously-purchased Mavic 3 drones if users have updated the firmware required for C1 certification, and then request appropriate marking from DJI. Though, DJI said that current DJI Mavic 3 owners will have to wait until sometime later this year for that firmware update to actually hit (that’s okay, considering the new rules don’t kick in until the beginning of 2024).
The process to get that firmware update will be free, and will require you to provide your drone serial number and confirmation that you’ve updated to the firmware needed to obtain C1 certification.
Here’s a breakdown of the differences between flying a drone with a C1 certificate versus not:
|With C1 certificate and C1-compliant firmware With C1 certificate and C1-compliant firmware (flying in the A1 Open Category from now on and after Dec. 31, 2023)||Without C1 certificate and without C1-compliant firmware (flying in the A2 Open Category through Dec. 31 2023; or in the A3 Open Category after Jan. 1, 2024)|
|Operational Restrictions||No flying over assemblies of people or uninvolved people||You must keep a minimum 50 meter horizontal distance from all people through Dec. 31, 2023 (and 150 meters come Jan. 1, 2024)|
|Obtain an A1/A3 “Proof of Competence” basic drone certificate by taking an officially-recognized theoretical online exam||Obtain A2 “Remote Piloting License” by taking an officially- recognized theoretical online exam and declaring self-practical training.|
|What happens if you fail your online exam?||There are no limits on attempts before passing.||If you fail, you must reapply for the exam, which may incur additional costs.|
What to know about the new EASA categories and classes
We told you the EASA categories and classes were a lot to parse. Here’s what you need to know:
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the new EASA rules is classifying drone operations into three categories, which are:
Open: Most leisure drone activities and low-risk commercial activities fit in this bucket. This category applies to drones that weigh less than 25 kg, don’t fly over people, stay within the pilot’s line of sight, among other stipulations applying to low-risk flights.
Within the open category are three subcategories that have increasingly fewer requirements (with A1 having the most, and A3 having the least), which are:
- A1: Flights over some people, but not over assemblies of people.
- A2: Flights close to people.
- A3: Flights far from people.
Specific: This category means that drones don’t meet ‘open’ requirements and will require authorization to be flown, but the nature of the flight isn’t quite as risk as the next category, which is dubbed “certified.”
Certified: This is the highest-risk category, and it applies to drones that are carrying out complicated operations such as flying over large crowds, delivering items, etc. To fly in the Certified category, the drone needs to be certified, and it can only be flown by a licensed remote pilot and an operator approved by the competent authority.
Additionally, the new EU rules divide drones into classes between C0 and C6.
C0 drones must weigh less than 249 grams, which is the case for drones like the DJI Mini 3 Pro and the DJI Mini 2. Most camera drones will fall into the C1 bucket, which encompasses drones that weigh less than 900 grams.
At least for leisure drone flights, EASA tried to simplify it all with a charming graphic (you can see the full size here):
It remains to be seen when other drones will get similar certifications, but it’s likely DJI will push for more of its drones to get such approvals. And other drone companies will likely soon follow DJI’s lead. And for what it’s worth, it it seems that the folks at TÜV Rheinland are pretty excited to be a part of the process, too.
“For TÜV Rheinland, this certification is also special because it is the first time in our 150-year history that we have certified an aircraft for its flight safety characteristics,” Stephan Scheuer, Head of the Technical Competence Center of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) at TÜV Rheinland said.