Drone Regulatory System

Understanding European Drone Regulations and the Aviation Regulatory System

EU and MS regulatory governance


The number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones or other air vehicles operating as Innovative Air Mobility (IAM) is growing and being used for many different applications, bringing huge benefits to our societies. But to make sure they are safe and can reach their full innovative potential as an industry, we need them to be operated under certain rules so that they are safe as well as other manned aircraft and people and property on the ground that surrounds them.

This article provides an explanation of the basics of drone operations, the regulatory system, and the organisations involved.

What types of vehicles the European “Drone” Regulation refers to 

“Unmanned Aircraft” means any aircraft operating or designed to operate autonomously or to be piloted remotely without a pilot on board. This definition includes all types of aircraft without a pilot on board, including radio-controlled flying models (powered fixed-wing, helicopters, gliders) whether they have an on-board camera or not.

The Drone Regulations use the term “unmanned aircraft system” (UAS) to refer to a drone, its system, and all the other equipment used to control and operate it, such as the command unit, the possible catapult to launch it, and others.

Remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPASs) is a subcategory of UASs, which includes both RPASs and fully autonomous UASs. Fully autonomous UASs fly completely by themselves without the need for any pilot intervention.

Understanding more about the Drone Industry

Drones are mostly characterised by being flying vehicles without people in them. This means they fly while controlled by operators on the ground without a pilot on board. Drones come in different sizes and uses, from very small, e.g. below 250 g to very fast drones, e.g. as fast as 290 km/h reached in drone racing. Moreover, some of the most fast-evolving UAVs are designed to transport passengers with a pilot but might also fly autonomously in urban environments. They feature vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities and contribute to the emerging field of Innovative Air Mobility (IAM), which bridges together many other urban transport sectors and stakeholders.

Uses for Drones

There are many different uses for drones. While they can be used for fun, there is a growing number of commercial uses for drones. These include:

  • Agriculture: Crop monitoring, field mapping, crop spraying, and livestock management.
  • Infrastructure inspection, construction and surveying: Site mapping, progress monitoring, and 3D modelling.
  • Innovative Air Mobility (IAM): Flying of passengers or cargo for commercial or other purposes such as Emergency Medical Services (EMSs).
  • Search and rescue (SAR): Drones equipped with cameras and thermal imaging sensors are deployed in SAR operations to locate missing persons, detect survivors in disaster zones, and deliver supplies in an emergency.
  • Environmental monitoring: Environmental-monitoring tasks such as wildlife tracking, habitat assessment, and pollution detection.
  • Emergency response: Including firefighters and law enforcement agencies, for situational awareness, incident management, and damage assessment during emergencies and natural disasters.
  • Media and entertainment: For filming aerial shots in movies, television shows, commercials, and live events.
  • Education and research: When incorporated into educational curricula and research projects in fields such as engineering, geography, environmental science, and wildlife biology.


The Organisations shaping Drone Regulations in the European Union

There are many different organisations involved in developing drone regulations and supporting the safe and efficient integration of drones into the European airspace, while ensuring compliance with safety, security, and operational requirements:

  • European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA): EASA is responsible for developing regulations and ensuring safety in civil aviation across the European Union. Regarding drones, EASA establishes common rules and standards, issues certifications, and oversees the implementation of regulations to ensure the safe integration of drones into the European airspace.
  • European National Aviation Authorities (NAAs) NAAs in European countries implement and enforce aviation regulations within their respective jurisdictions. They work in coordination with EASA to ensure compliance with European standards and regulations, including those pertaining to drones.
  • European Organisation for Civil Aviation Equipment (EUROCAE): EUROCAE develops standards for aviation equipment and systems, including those related to drones. Their standards provide guidance and technical specifications for the design, manufacture, and operation of drone-related technologies, contributing to safety and interoperability.
  • EUROCONTROL: This is a pan-European organisation responsible for coordinating Air Traffic Management (ATM) across the European airspace. They work with EASA and national authorities to integrate drones into the existing ATM system safely and efficiently, ensuring airspace capacity and maintaining safety standards.
  • Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS):  JARUS is an international group of experts from about 66 regulatory authorities and regional aviation safety organisations from 64 countries as well as EASA and EUROCONTROL. They collaborate to develop harmonised technical, safety, and operational standards and guidelines for the regulation of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), facilitating the safe and uniform integration of drones into national airspace systems. JARUS provides guidance material to facilitate each authority to write their own requirements and avoid duplicated efforts.
  • SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU):  This is a European public-private partnership focused on modernising and harmonising ATM in Europe through research and innovation. It was established in 2007 to manage the definition, research, development, and validation activities of the SESAR Project. SJU contributes to the development and implementation of innovative technologies and procedures to accommodate drones within the broader ATM framework.
  • European Defence Agency (EDA): While primarily focused on defence matters, EDA also plays a role in drone regulation, particularly regarding military drone operations and their integration with civil airspace. They work to ensure coordination and compatibility between military and civilian drone operations, promoting safety and security.

The European Drone Regulations

The Drone Regulations in Europe comprise a framework of applicable materials, standards, guidelines, and best practices that ensure the safe, efficient, and harmonised integration of drones into the European airspace. These elements work together to establish requirements, provide guidance, and promote a culture of safety and compliance among drone operators, manufacturers, and regulators. This regulatory framework governs the design, operation, administrative requirements, as well as safety and data protection requirements of drones. Here is how these elements interrelate:


  • EASA regulations: EASA establishes common rules and standards for civil aviation safety across EU Member States (MSs), including drones since 2018. These regulations cover certification, operational requirements, and safety standards for drones.
  • National regulations:  Each EU and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) MS may have additional or complementary regulations specific to their jurisdiction, which must align with EASA regulations.
  • The different applicable materials in the Drone rules:
    • Implementing rules: EASA develops implementing rules that detail specific requirements for drone operations, such as certification, licensing, and operational limitations.
    • Guidance material:  EASA publishes guidance material, such as advisory circulars, handbooks, and best-practice documents, to assist operators, manufacturers, and authorities in interpreting and implementing regulations effectively.
    • Safety promotion material: EASA creates material such as videos and leaflets, and organises campaigns to raise awareness and inform stakeholders about various practical aspects of drone safety and compliance with the rules.
    • Technical standards: Technical standards developed by organisations, like EUROCAE or the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), provide specifications for drone design, equipment, and systems, to ensure interoperability, safety, and performance.


  • EUROCAE standards:  EUROCAE develops standards for civil aviation equipment, including drones. These standards cover areas such as communication, navigation, surveillance, and system integration, to ensure compatibility and interoperability.
  • International standards (e.g. ISO):  International standards organisations, such as ISO, also develop standards relevant to drone operations, including those related to quality and safety management, risk assessment, and operational procedures.
  • SHEPHERD (UAS standards): This is a specific research project related to providing a complementary technical analysis of the UAS standards in so far as the technical content, to determine whether the standards are adequate to meet the safety objective of the provisions of the related regulations. The European UAS Standards Coordination Group (EUSCG), led by EASA, developed the Rolling Development Plan for UASs (U-RDP), listing more than 800 standards, developed by standardisation bodies from different parts of the world for this effect.

Guidelines and Best Practices

  • JARUS guidelines:  JARUS develops guidelines and recommendations for the safe integration of drones into airspace. These guidelines address technical, operational, and regulatory aspects of drone operations.
  • Industry best practices: Industry associations and organisations may develop best practices and voluntary standards to promote safe and responsible drone operations, addressing topics such as training, maintenance, and data protection.

Countries where the Drone Regulations apply

The drone rules are applicable not only to EU MSs but also to certain non-EU countries that are part of EFTA and which participate in the EASA system as part of their ties with the European Union. These countries include Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Iceland.

The EU Drone Regulations became applicable in all MSs since 31 December 2020 and superseded national regulations. However, the EU Drone Regulations provide some flexibility for the MSs to develop acts to define certain aspects such as: minimum age for remote pilots, conversion of certificates issued before the applicability of the EU Drone Regulations, authorisation of model clubs and associations, fines when breaching the regulation, designation and use of geographical zones, and insurance requirements.

The EASA MSs cannot develop any further regulations on drones on a topic that is already regulated by the EU Drone Regulations.

Some Key Concepts in the Drone Regulations

The Drone Regulations define some terms and concepts that provide a lot of clarity in understanding the context in which they need to be applied. Some examples of the most important ones are:

  • Unmanned aircraft system (UAS):  A UAS refers to an aircraft that is operated without a human pilot on board. It consists of the unmanned aircraft itself, along with any associated elements such as control stations, communication links, support equipment, and the personnel necessary for operation. UAS are also more commonly referred to as “drones”.
  • Involved person:  An involved person, in the context of drone operations, typically refers to anyone who participates in, or has responsibilities related to, the actual operation of a UAS. This can include the operator, remote pilots, maintenance personnel, ground crew, observers, and others who may have a role in the safe and effective operation of the drone.
  • UAS operator:  A UAS operator is an individual or entity responsible for the overall operation of a UAS. This includes planning and conducting flights, ensuring compliance with regulations, maintenance of the UAS, managing personnel involved in the operation, and addressing any safety or security concerns related to UAS operations. An operator might or might not be also a remote drone pilot.
  • UAS remote pilot: A remote pilot is the person who operates a UAS from a remote location, typically using a ground control station or similar interface. Remote pilots are responsible for controlling the flight of the drone, monitoring its systems and surroundings, and ensuring safe and compliant operation according to relevant regulations and operational procedures. All remote UAS pilots need to undergo training, pass a simple test, and receive a remote-pilot certificate. This certificate is valid across all EASA countries.
  • Model aircraft:  Model aircraft, and certain other variations, have been around for a very long time. They are as old as aviation itself. Model aircraft typically refer to unmanned scale replicas of real aircraft flown for recreational or hobby purposes. They are often radio controlled but can have other alternative means to guide them. They fall under the broader category of UAS and may be subject to relevant regulations.

The regulations contain additional terms worth acquainting oneself with, presented in a straightforward manner for easy understanding.

Legal Basis and Scope of Competences

Regulation (EU) 2018/1139, also known as the EASA Basic Regulation, is a key piece of legislation in the European Union (EU) that establishes common rules in the field of civil aviation, including a comprehensive framework for the regulation of all UAS or drones, serving governmental or public service functions in the EU, with a focus on safety, risk-based regulation, and coordination between the EU and MSs' National Aviation Authorities (NAAs). The Basic Regulation provides a clear delineation of responsibilities between EASA and MSs and contains provisions for the inclusion of specific categories of UASs. The Basic Regulation was expanded in 2018 with a new scope of remits, including the extension of EU competence to all UASs.

Below is a summary of what the rules entail regarding UASs and the EU's competence:

  • Establishment of common rules: The Basic Regulation sets out common rules for civil aviation safety, including the operation of UASs, across all EU MSs. This ensures a harmonised approach to UAS regulation within the European Union (EU).
  • EASA competence:  The Regulation grants EASA competence in the regulation of UAS operations. EASA is responsible for developing and implementing regulations, standards, and procedures to ensure the safe operation of UAS across the EU. More concretely, EASA carries out on behalf of MSs the functions and tasks of the state of design for all UASs. EASA issues the type certificate (TC) for UASs, when needed.
  • Scope of application:  Initially, the Regulation primarily focuses on civil drones. However, there is an important provision allowing for the possibility to 'opt-in' for certain categories of aircraft that perform specific governmental or public service functions. This includes aircraft involved in state services, military operations, firefighting, search and rescue (SAR), and coast guard activities. By opting in, these aircraft can be subject to the requirements of Regulation (EU) 2018/1139, ensuring consistent safety standards across all UAS operations, whether civilian or serving public interests.
  • Safety requirements:  The Regulation delegates to EASA the responsibility to conduct the functions and tasks of the state of design for all UASs. This includes activities such as issuing TCs for UAS designs, which confirm that a particular type of UAS meets safety and airworthiness requirements. EASA also drafts implementing rules that specify the technical and operational requirements for UASs. The Regulation also establishes safety requirements for UAS operations, UAS production, and maintenance of UAS, as well as operational requirements for UAS operators and remote pilots.
  • Certification and authorisation:  The Regulation lays down procedures for the certification and authorisation of UASs, operators, and remote pilots. This includes requirements for obtaining licenses or approvals to operate UASs in specific categories or for specific types of operations.
  • Coordination with MSs:  While EASA has competence in regulating UAS operations, the Regulation also emphasises the importance of coordination with National Aviation Authorities (NAAs) and other relevant authorities in EU MSs. For example, while EASA handles the certification of UAS designs, MSs' NAAs retain important responsibilities. NAAs issue certificates of airworthiness (CoA) for individual UASs based on the TC issued by EASA. These certificates confirm that an individual UAS meets the approved design standards and is safe for operation. Additionally, NAAs may issue authorisations to UAS operators, ensuring that operators meet the necessary requirements for safe and compliant UAS operations. This coordination ensures effective implementation and enforcement of the UAS Regulations at national level.

A UAS Regulatory Framework comprised of two Legal Acts

It can be slightly confusing at first to notice that the EU regulatory framework includes TWO legal bases that pertain to unmanned aircraft systems (UASs):

From a legal standpoint, the main difference between them lies in their respective functions and purposes within the regulatory framework. While both regulations pertain to UASs within the European Union:

  • Regulation (EU) 2019/947 focuses on operational requirements and procedures (e.g. operator registration, remote pilot‘s certificate, etc). It entered into force on 1 July 2019 and became applicable on 31 December 2020, directly replacing national regulations. The related Acceptable Means of Compliance and Guidance Material (AMC & GM) are published on the EASA website.
  • Regulation (EU) 2019/945 addresses technical certification requirements (e.g. design, manufacturing, maintenance, etc.) and third-country operations. It entered into force and became applicable on 1 July 2019.

More specifically, Regulation (EU) 2019/947 covers the following:

  • Implementing regulations are legal acts adopted by the European Commission to ensure the uniform application of EU laws across all MSs.
  • Implementing regulations provide specific details and guidelines on how EU laws and regulations should be applied in practice.
  • Regulation (EU) 2019/947, in particular, concerns the rules and procedures for the operation of UASs in the European Union.

Regulation (EU) 2019/945 covers the following:

  • Delegated regulations are legal acts delegated by the European Commission to supplement or amend non-essential parts of EU legislative acts.
  • Delegated regulations provide additional specifications or clarifications to the primary legislation, ensuring its effective implementation.
  • Regulation (EU) 2019/945 specifically relates to the certification requirements for UAS and their remote pilots, supplementing the provisions of Regulation (EU) 2019/947.

What are the applicability dates of Regulations (EU) 2019/947 and 2019/945?

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the applicability date of Regulation (EU) 2019/947 was deferred from 1 July 2020 to 31 December 2020. The following therefore applies in this sequence:

  • as of 31 December 2020, registration of drone operators and certified drones becomes mandatory;
  • as of 31 December 2020, operations in the ‘specific’ category may be conducted after authorisation has been given by the NAA;
  • between 31 December 2020 and 1 January 2024, drone users operating drones without C-class identification labels can continue to operate in the limited category under Article 22 of Regulation (EU) 2019/947;
  • as of 1 January 2024, all drones introduced into the market must bear a corresponding C-class identification label;
  • as of 1 January 2022, national authorisations, certificates, and declarations must be fully converted to the new EU System;
  • as of 1 January 2022, EASA MSs must make available information on geographical zones for geo-awareness in a digital format, harmonised between the EU MSs; and
  • as of 1 January 2023, all operations in the ‘open’ category and all drone operators must fully comply with Regulations (EU) 2019/947 and 2019/945 (see the related Easy Access Rules for Unmanned Aircraft Systems).