Studying UAS Regulations Overseas

By Patrick C. Miller | January 21, 2016

Last week, pilot and aviation attorney Sarah Nilsson began teaching a course on global UAS regulations at Embry-Riddle’s College of Aviation in Prescott, Arizona. She decided the course was needed because so many of the school’s unmanned aerial systems (UAS) graduates were getting jobs overseas. Currently, she said there are 68 countries with UAS laws on the books. 

“It’s necessary because if you’re getting jobs in UAS and you’re going all over the world to do them, it only makes sense that you should know that country’s airspace, know its aviation governing agency to get your permits and know what you can and cannot do for your company,” Nilsson explained.

In the process of putting together the curriculum for the class, she conducted a great deal of research on the rules and regulations other countries are drafting and implementing. What she learned gave her a different perspective on the challenge the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) faces in developing UAS regulations for the U.S.

“I’m getting a feel for how much bigger of a problem it is than I thought,” she said. “A year ago I’d say ‘Hurry up FAA and move on with this because you’re behind the deadline already.’

“Now I see that it’s not as easy as it looks,” Nilsson continued. “The rest of the world is trying to do the same thing because even if they had regulations in place, sometimes they’re not adequate. I have an appreciation for the fact that this is a worldwide issue.”

For example, she said many countries belong to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) which has yet to issue a final UAS rule and isn’t scheduled to do so until 2018. In Europe, Nilsson noted that the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has issued regulations for UAS weighing more than 150 kilograms (331 pounds), but is leaving it up to individual countries in the European Union to develop their own regulations for smaller UAS.

“Canada, which had rules in place for years, is revising them because of changes in technology and UAS being more readily available to the public. They won’t be done until 2017,” she said.

According to Nilsson, some countries in South America, Asia and the Middle East either have no regulations at all or simply issue a blanket ban on UAS operations. She singles out New Zealand as a country that’s following an approach she advocates—an approach she wishes the FAA would pursue.

“What New Zealand did impressed me in explaining the airspace to UAS users,” she said. “The information packet they put together and their campaign to break the regulations down by weight is based on testing they’ve already done. It makes so much sense.

“Little toys that can’t fly high are never going to be a potential threat to an airliner,” Nilsson continued. “So you keep them 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) away from an airport and you can fly it as much as you want below 200 feet. If you’re at a certain weight, you need permission. If you’re above a certain weight, you need an operating certificate.”

Nilsson also likes the fact that New Zealand doesn’t distinguish between hobbyist and commercial UAS operations.

“It doesn’t matter what you use the UAS for, it’s the same size equipment that could potentially cause the same harm,” she said. “The regulations need to reflect that, and we’re not doing it in the U.S.—a lot of countries aren’t doing it.”

Those who think the FAA is moving too slowly with its UAS regulations could learn something from studying what’s happening in the rest of the world. And the FAA might learn something from studying what’s happening in New Zealand to determine if some aspects of its UAS regulations would make sense in the U.S.