On both sides the Atlantic, the issue of integrating manned and unmanned aerial vehicles over controlled airspace has two distinct angles: one is technological and the other regulatory. These are issues the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the USA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in Europe are directly dealing with, as the agencies work to sort out the inevitable reality of what it will mean to share the same airspace.

The tricky part is that both agencies have to make sure that said integration preserves the excellent safety record which commercial aviation enjoys today. It’s why the FAA has joined NASA and many other private and public organizations in the search for the best system that would guarantee the continuity of this safety record. It’s also why EASA has been working closely with industry, academia and the government sector to develop their unique version of a safe environment where to integrate, and they've just reached a major milestone on that front.

On 26 June 2018, the European Council adopted updated aviation safety rules, which include a revised mandate for EASA and the first ever EU-wide rules for civil drones of all sizes. The reform introduces proportionate and risk-based rules designed to enable the EU aviation sector to grow, make it more competitive and encourage innovation.

The rules on UAVs lay down the basic principles to ensure safety, security, privacy, data protection and environmental protection. The text establishes the registration threshold for commercial UAV operators. Operators must be registered if the vehicles they operate are capable of transferring more than 80 Joules of kinetic energy upon impact with a person. More detailed rules on drones will be set by the Commission with help from EASA, on the basis of the principles outlined in this rule.

This new Basic Regulation formalizes EASA’s role in the domain of UAVs and urban air mobility, enabling EASA to prepare guidelines for all sizes of civil drones and harmonize standards for the commercial market across Europe, the agency said. It also enlarges EASA’s role in areas such as environmental protection, research and development and international cooperation as well as giving EASA a coordinating role in cybersecurity in aviation.

“This new mandate consolidates EASA’s scope to cover the full spectrum of the aviation landscape and reinforces the European aviation system as a whole, with the possibility for EASA and European Member States to work closer together in a flexible way,” EASA said.

“In a sector facing unprecedented technological transformation, it was important to provide EASA with the proper tools and legal foundation to support the development of the aviation industry in particular in domains like drones and digitalization,” EASE executive director Patrick Ky said. “At the same time we need to preserve the European society aspirations for a safer and environmentally friendly world.”

The European Council’s vote concludes the legislative procedure at first reading and the European Parliament voted on 12 June 2018. The regulation will be signed by both institutions and published in the EU Official Journal, probably by the end of July. It will enter into force 20 days after publication.