reciprocity EU Ireland FAA

Reciprocity between US and EU drone pilots: is it possible?

Next up in our “Ask Drone Girl” series is about U.S.-EU reciprocity around drone licenses. If you have a question for Drone Girl, contact her here.

What’s up with the European Union and regional Civil Aviation Authorities, vs the FAA not being able to talk to each other to develop some kind of reciprocity with drone permitting — particularly if we have a Part 107 license? 

As the drone industry evolves, so too do the regulations governing their operation. Yet across two of the biggest governing bodies — the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — their regulatory approaches have evolved in pretty different directions.

For drone operators, especially those with Part 107 licenses issued by the FAA in the US, who are seeking to fly their drones in the EU, that’s made things more difficult than perhaps they had hoped.

The drone regulatory landscape in the EU

The EU’s approach to drone regulation is — by most metrics — a more restrictive approach than the US.

As of Dec. 31, 2020, civil drone operators in the EU are subject to Regulation (EU) 2019/947, which classifies drones into three categories based on their weight and intended use:

  • Open Category: This covers the majority of leisure drone activities and low-risk commercial activities (e.g. the drone weighs less than 25 kg, doesn’t fly over people and stays within the pilot’s line of sight). Within the open category are three subcategories:
    • A1: Flights over some people, but not over assemblies of people.
    • A2: Flights close to people.
    • A3: Flights far from people.

A2 has what are considered the biggest requirements in the Open Category. That’s because — in gaining the ability to fly near or over people — there is some elevated level of risk. Given that, A2 requires a Remote Pilot License (which requires you to pass a proctored exam). Meanwhile, you can gain access to fly in A1 and A3 situations fairly easily, and in one sitting. Simply pass a 60-minute, self-guided online course with no proctored exam.

For the most part, drones weighing less than 250 grams are considered to be in the Open Category and can be flown without a permit in most areas.

  • Specific Category: This category means that your drone flight don’t meet ‘open’ requirements and will require a permit to operate. These permits are typically issued by national aviation authorities.
  • Certified Category: This is the highest-risk category, and it applies to drone flights that execute 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 must meet stringent safety requirements before they can be flown.

Keep in mind that the drones themselves aren’t really what determines the category or subcategory, but the type of operation that is being flown. In other words, in A3 you can operate a heavy drone of with a Maximum Take Off Mass (MTOM) of 25 kg. But, in A2, you can only operate a light drone of up to 4kg. Likewise, the Specific Category breaks down the MTOM and flight parameters into sub-categories.

The Part 107 license in the US

Relative to EASA, the FAA has a more streamlined regulatory approach for drones, largely splitting drone operations into recreational (e.g. flying for fun) and commercial (flying for business).

Under the FAA’s Part 107, commercial drone operators can obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate (RPC) after passing an online knowledge test. With an RPC, drone operators receive what’s effectively a drone pilot’s license, allowing them to fly drones weighing less than 55 pounds in most uncontrolled airspace without obtaining additional permits (though it is more complicated for drones weighing 55 pounds or more).

Meanwhile, recreational pilots generally just need to take and pass the Recreational UAS Safety Test (called TRUST) online test, have a current FAA registration and  broadcast Remote ID information for most types of flights.

The challenge of reciprocity between the US and EU

Given the differences in regulatory approaches, there is not currently any sort of reciprocity with drone permitting. But what about future plans? I reached out to the FAA to see if there were any developments — and alas there are not.

“We are not aware of any current discussions between EASA and the FAA to develop any reciprocity with drone permitting,” said Rick Breitenfeldt, a Public Affairs Specialist at the FAA in an email to The Drone Girl.

The EU’s Specific Category regulations are largely more stringent than the FAA’s Part 107 requirements. As a result, drone operators with Part 107 licenses wouldn’t necessarily be able to meet the requirements to obtain a permit to fly their drones in the EU.

Recommendations for American drone pilots who want to fly in Europe

If you are a drone operator with a Part 107 license from the FAA, but you want to fly your drone in the EU (let’s say, you’re an American on vacation in Europe and want aerial footage of your trip), here’s what you must do to ensure compliance with local regulations:

  1. Register as a drone operator with the National Aviation Authority of the first EASA state you intend to operate from (so if your first stop is Germany and you’re heading to Italy on the second stop of your European vacation, you’d register your drone with Germany’s Federal Aviation Office).

Registration can sometimes be expensive though. In the Germany example, The fee per registration is €50 for visitors. Luckily though, once you are registered in one EASA Member State, your registration is valid across all other EASA Member States, so you wouldn’t need to register (and pay yet another fee) for your next stop in Italy. 

  1. Once registered, you’ll receive a ‘drone operator registration number, which must be displayed (typically via a sticker) on all the drones you’ll be flying in Europe.
  2. You need to train and pass the drone pilot’s certificate online exam and get the European certificate in any EASA Member State. Some National Aviation Authorities offer the training and exam in English. 
  3. Comply with the European Drone regulations, which can add on additional requirements (for example, someEASA Member States mandate you hold third party insurance). 

What’s the best European country to register your drone?

Many folks recommend registering in Ireland. For starters, the site is in English, which removes any translation barriers. But Ireland’s process is also among the most straightforward and cheap. 

When registering with the Irish Aviation Authority, registration as an operator costs €30 and is valid for two years. Their “training” requirement (as mentioned above in step 3) is super simple; it’s a free online course that only takes about 15 minutes, and entails you watching a short video and then answering 40 simple questions. Once you pass, you’ll receive a “Proof of Online Training” certificate which you should print out and keep with your drone as you travel throughout Europe. Though, note that certification is still required for drones over 250g and costs €30.

Learn more about registering as a drone pilot in Ireland here.

What about drones under 250 grams?

Many types of drone flights are far easier if your drone weighs less than 250 grams, which has led to the rise in popularity for drones such as the DJI Mini 4.

Check with the country, exact type of flight and type of drone you’re flying (learn more here). But generally speaking, very simple drone flights such as toy drones weighing less than 250 grams that aren’t flying over people don’t require registration.

Do you think there should be some sort of reciprocity between drone pilots in the EU and US? Why or why not? Leave your thoughts on reciprocity around drones below!

Thanks to Matthew Sieradzki, an EU Remote Pilot, for contributing to this report.

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