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This publication is intended for organisations which are considering working with drones in Europe and are at the beginning of the orientation phase. After reading this article you will be familiar with the main outlines of the EASA regulations, with a focus on the Netherlands. I also briefly explain what is involved, for both the pilot and the organisation (operator), to be allowed to fly with drones in the first place.

If your organisation is much further ahead, feel free to contact me (hofland@ UnmannedValue.com) to talk about applying for basic or more complex operational licences, the risks involved in implementing unmanned aviation within larger organisations or limiting risks by means of a UAS workflow management framework and compliance tools, to name a few examples.

Before discussing the above topics in greater detail, it is important to understand the following authorities involved:

EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency): responsible for the development of European laws and regulations for unmanned (and manned) aerial vehicles within Europe. EASA defines regulations, EU member states may make exceptions to these regulations but only in as far as this applies to their own airspace.

JARUS (Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems): a group without legal status, consisting of 63 countries, EASA and Eurocontrol, which provides in-depth advice to its members (including EASA) regarding all aspects of unmanned aviation.

IL&T (Inspectie Leefomgeving en Transport): executive, supervisory and enforcement agency for unmanned aviation (and other operations) in the Netherlands and issuer of operational permits.

Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management: the official Dutch Aviation Authority which determines the policies. IL&T report to this ministry. They are responsible for integration of the EASA regulations into the Dutch system and are a discussion partner of EASA.

THE THREE CATEGORIES

EASA has divided the rules for flights with unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones or UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System), into three categories based on risk potential. The OPEN category includes drone operations with a very low risk. Most commercial drone operations, such as inspections, fall into the SPECIFIC Category. Operations with a very high risk, such as transporting people or dangerous goods, or drones with a very high weight, fall into the CERTIFIED category. The regulations for the CERTIFIED category are still largely in the making and will not be considered further in this article.

EASA sets requirements for the pilot and the operator. To gain insight into the requirements needed to perform operations within the EASA OPEN and SPECIFIC Category, I have listed a few things for you:

OPEN CATEGORY OPERATIONS

GENERAL
Open category operations are divided into three subcategories where, depending on the weight of the drone, you have more or fewer operational possibilities or restrictions. For operations in the OPEN category, there are also many prohibited areas. These include industrial areas, ports, flying in built-up areas with drones over 249 grams, near vital infrastructure, motorways, highways, railways, controlled airspace (CTRs around major airports), etc.

If you do wish to fly in the areas stated above or with a heavier drone there are possibilities within the SPECIFIC category, with approved procedures, safety measures and qualified pilots, to perform an operation. If you want to know more about the OPEN category, for example what the operational limitations are per subcategory, please visit www.dronewijzer.nl.

PILOT
There are two certificates, namely A1/A3 for flying very light drones (A1) or flying heavier drones (max. 25 kg) far away from people and objects (A3). The second certificate A2 is needed if you want to fly close to people with a drone of max. 4 kg. Because A1 and A3 have the same risk potential (low weight on one hand and higher weight – but further away – on the other hand) the training and examination for these two subcategories are the same.

Pilot training has formalised in Europe for the OPEN category. However, exams must always be taken by designated training organisations (the theory course and exam may be taken 100% online). For the A2 training, additional practical training is mandatory (prescribed by EASA) and one must declare, digitally, to have completed it when obtaining the A2 licence.

The certificate is issued by RDW on the basis of information provided by the flight school and the online registration of the operator (usually the same person in this lower category) with RDW. It is important to know that no other operational authorisations are possible than those described within the three subcategories of the OPEN category. If you want more, you automatically end up in the SPECIFIC category.

If you fly professionally in the OPEN category, liability insurance is mandatory (insurance must comply with Regulation (EC) 785/2004), if you fly as a hobby, liability insurance is mandatory from a take-off weight of 20 kg. Insurance is recommended for weights below 20 kg, but it is not mandatory for hobby use.

Tip: if you want more information about the rules and procedures surrounding the deployment of drones within a particular country (EU member state), type NAA or CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) and the name of the desired country into Google. Always do this in the orientation phase; EU member states are allowed to make exceptions to the EASA regulations and do so frequently. This can have a direct impact on the intended drone operations on site.

SPECIFIC CATEGORY OF OPERATIONS

PILOT
After having successfully completed the full OPEN Category, you must have received additional training for the SPECIFIC Category* at a training institute recognised by the relevant ministry. This training consists at least of extensive practical training and theory, both concluded with an examination** (approved by IL&T).

In addition, the pilot must be familiar with the instructions (user manual) of the manufacturer of the drone being flown and must be fully acquainted with the Operations Manual under which he/she performs the operation. This is also regularly checked by the IL&T during an audit. New pilots will have to receive additional training from the operator so that they become familiar with the operations that occur before being allowed to carry them out in the field.

Soon there will be additional training for certain types of operations (EASA endorsement modules), we will discuss this in more detail later.

This is a very concise representation of the current UAS training situation in the Netherlands. There are many temporary exceptions that make it necessary to choose alternative training routes. There are also possibilities to integrate training resources in licence applications, allowing operators to train their future pilots themselves. We can discuss this in more detail in personal contact.

ORGANISATION
It is a common misunderstanding that if a pilot is trained to fly within the EASA SPECIFIC category, this is immediately possible. This is only possible if the pilot flies under a licence of an organisation. An organisation that wants to fly in the SPECIFIC category needs a licence issued by IL&T.

To obtain this licence, the operator must have an operations manual with the Concept of operations. The Concept of operations is a detailed description of the type of operations that may be performed, with which drones, and under which conditions.

The manual also describes the responsibilities for the operations, how they are prepared for, how maintenance is organised and many other things. When developing the manual, you usually work with a template that is tailored to the organisation. To prepare a permit application, an organisation can choose to outsource the entire process or to do it itself. Outsourcing may be more convenient, although all those involved must be thoroughly familiar with the content of all documents. There are various parties that assist organisations with this, including Unmanned Value, of course. For organisations that want to do it themselves (recommended in many cases) there are workshops to get you started, by Dutch Drone Academy for example (the word ’these’ links to: Specific Category Operations Workshop – Dutch Drone Academy)

OBTAINING PERMITS for OPERATIONS IN THE SPECIFIC CATEGORY

In the SPECIFIC category, there are the following routes to obtain a permission :

  • EASA STS (Standard Scenarios)
  • PDRA (Pre-Defined Risk Assessment)
  • SORA (SPECIFIC Operations Risk Assessment)
  • LUC (Light UAS Certificate)

Whichever route is chosen, IL&T will assess whether a licence can be issued on the basis of the documents submitted.

EASA STS

For low-risk operations, the risk analysis and associated mitigation measures have already been worked out in advance by EASA in an STS. The operator must only declare that he complies with all requirements. Therefore, the permit can be obtained relatively quickly. An example of a standard scenario is flights over a controlled ground surface (no people under the drone) in a populated area. There are currently two standard scenarios (STSs) developed by EASA. However, due to the lack of inspected, or C-marked drones (which is one of the requirements within these STSs), the use (declaration) of STSs has been delayed until 2023 for the time being.

More about C marking is provided by this article by DroneWatch (How does a drone get a Cx mark? | Dronewatch).

PDRA
A PDRA (Pre-Defined Risk Assessment) is comparable to the EASA STS, but this is made by the aviation authority for each country and can be partly filled in by the pilot himself. In this PDRA, the operational (ground and air) risks are described and the mitigating measures are determined. In the Netherlands, an operator receives an operating permit (operational authorisation) based on several PDRAs. This made it possible for operators who already held a licence before the introduction of the European rules to make a seamless transition. New entrants to the drone operator market in the Netherlands will in most cases use the PDRA S-01, a derivative of the STS but without the mandatory C5/C6 drone included.

Within the EASA SPECIFIC Category, there are large differences in operational requirements between the various EU Member States. The situation that we have with an operational authorisation for example for operations in industrial areas, is not known elsewhere. In most European countries you submit a SORA for each operation in the SPECIFIC category.

SORA

If the risk level of desired operations is not covered by the STS or available PDRAs, approval can still be obtained by performing a risk analysis prepared by EASA. This risk analysis is called SORA (SPECIFIC Operations Risk Assessment). The SORA is a predefined template for the risk analysis. It looks at the risk to people on the ground (Ground Risk Class) and the risk to other air users (Air Risk Class).

By combining these two risks in a cross-referenced table, a final risk level is determined (SAIL level: Specific Assurance Integrity Level) from 1 to 6.

In the Netherlands, writing a SORA is reserved for drone operations with a higher than average risk profile. There are numerous workshops on this subject, it can also get quite complex.

LUC
Finally, there is the LUC (Light UAS Operator Certificate) whereby the operator (organisation) itself is authorised to approve PDRAs and/or SORAs without the intervention of IL&T.

Spoiler alert: If your organisation only carries out operations in the Netherlands, a LUC makes less sense. This is because the LUC is issued for exactly the same operations for which an operational authorisation is issued. In many other EU Member States, licences are only issued for one specific type of operation, which makes a LUC worthwhile, because otherwise you would have to go through a new licensing process every time.

So, for operators working internationally, a LUC is good news. But getting a LUC is no mean feat and is very costly and time-consuming. In the Netherlands, there is currently only one company with an LUC. Read more about it in our publication: All about obtaining a LUC certificate. (links: LUC – Unmanned Value)

If you want to learn more about the permit application process, with or without help from us, take a look at this workshop video: SPECIFIC Category Operations Workshop – Dutch Drone Academy.

* When applying for an EASA SPECIFIC category licence you declare that your pilot(s) is/are sufficiently trained to safely conduct the operations described in the licence application. After the OPEN category, in the Netherlands this usually means that the pilot has followed an EASA SPECIFIC category Standard Scenario 01 training. However, it may also be the case that the pilot has received training from/at the operator. Because the operator is not under supervision, he/she will in the latter case have to describe the training and send it along with the licence application (complete syllabus and accessories). The consequence may be that IL&T will first audit the training before granting the desired license.

ENDORSEMENT MODULES

Every drone pilot starts with the well-known A1/A3 and A2 training within the EASA OPEN category. For flying low risk operations within the SPECIFIC category there are the standard scenarios (STS-01/02, etc.) for operators (organisations) and the STS-01 theory and practice training for the pilot. The STS drone pilot training prescribed by EASA is therefore already being used in the Netherlands, even though the STS itself cannot yet be declared or officially recognised by IL&T.

According to EASA (Decision 2022/002/R), a Member State must ensure the issue of an STS certificate (the replacement of the former RPA-L licence but slightly less demanding) so that the pilot in question can demonstrate his competence. This is not yet the case in the Netherlands, but it is hoped that this will be arranged soon. It is in any case on the agenda of the Ministry of I&W, IL&T and RDW.

Currently, the drone schools designated by the ministry issue STS-01 theory and practice certificates to the successful pilots. This works but is already becoming difficult to use in foreign countries where the method of recognition as practised in the Netherlands is not widely used.

In addition to STS qualification, a pilot must meet additional requirements (in the future) for certain drone operations in the SPECIFIC category. The subjects and learning objectives are laid down by EASA in endorsements.

For example, to carry out night flights, a pilot must know what the definition of a night flight is, why you must use a green light, what happens to your eyes (vision) in the dark, how you can still scan the environment properly and how you can optimise the flight path to minimise the risk of collisions, to name a few issues.

Practical training is also part of an endorsement, for example practising emergency and contingency procedures. This is just a small selection from a long list of topics and learning objectives of the endorsement: ‘night operations’.

There are currently endorsements defined for:

  • Operations during the night
  • BVLOS (out of pilot’s sight)
  • Low altitude (below 500 ft)
  • Flights in non-segregated airspace
  • Transport and/or offloading of cargo
  • Transport of dangerous goods
  • Operations with multiple drones simultaneously
  • Using special equipment for launches and recoveries
  • Flying over mountainous terrain
  • Flying over populated areas

It is also possible that a certain type of operation requires a combination of several endorsements. This may lead to additional procedures, additional checklists or other team members requiring additional training. My expectation is that around the beginning of 2023 endorsement modules may come into force. As soon as this becomes clear, we will inform our clients immediately.

Thank you for reading my post. Feel free to contact me or my business partner Pieter Franken via www.UnmannedValue.com. My next publication will focus on the obligations drone operators have to train their crew (pilot, observer, payload operator) and how to comply with the Dutch legal requirements when applying for an operational license. Questions that will be answered are:

  • Is the operator solely responsible for training their drone operating staff?
  • Must a qualified entity (aangewezen opleidingsinstelling) always be used for training drone pilots in The Netherlands?
  • How do I implement training and proof of training in our permit application?
  • Can we train and examine drone pilots internally and still be compliant?
  • What to expect during a IL&T audit concerning drone pilot training?

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