India To Collaborate With EU on New Drone, AAM Regulations

An agreement between Indian and European aviation authorities will see the two collaborate on new standards for advanced aviation.

An agreement between Indian and European aviation authorities will see the two collaborate on new standards for advanced aviation. [Credit: Shutterstock]

When it comes to regulating drones, the Federal Aviation Administration and the EU’s European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) don't always agree.

In some areas, like rules surrounding unmanned traffic management (UTM), the two regulatory bodies are quite similar. But they diverge on issues like safety, for example, where the FAA’s hands-off approach clashes with EASA’s more heavy-handed policies. 

To be clear, the agencies are not enemies—they’ll meet in Germany in less than two months to discuss safety regulations and other rulemaking strategies, as they have for nearly two decades. But when two of the world’s most prominent aviation regulators disagree, who should other nations look to?

India on Thursday made its answer clear.

At this week’s EU-India Aviation Summit in New Delhi, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and EASA signed letters of intent for a collaboration that will see the two sides work together to establish new regulations for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and UTM, answering calls from several regional ACI [Airports Council International] groups.

The agreement builds on a working arrangement between the two agencies, first established in 2021, to promote the sharing of safety information and rulemaking best practices. It also follows a historic deal that saw Air India, the country’s largest airline, purchase close to 500 jets from Airbus, Boeing, and other U.S. and E.U. manufacturers.

Together, EASA and DGCA will develop standards for drones and other urban air mobility solutions, like electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) systems. As part of the collaboration, the Airports Authority of India will also work with the EU’s Eurocontrol to manage increasingly congested air traffic. The two will exchange data on flight plans and profiles.

“Connectivity and innovation are two themes that we share with the European Union,” Rajiv Bansal, India’s civil aviation secretary, told Business Standard India. “We have shared ambitions and aligned objectives. I do believe there are several opportunities for win-win solutions between India and the EU in areas of air traffic management, infrastructure growth and host of innovation areas such as drones, eVTOL devices, hydrogen-powered vehicles.”

But what will those solutions look like? Taking a look at India and the E.U.’s current policies might be a good place to start.

In India, regulations are fairly stringent. Similar to the FAA’s remote identification rules, most drones—in this case, those weighing over 0.55 pounds—must have a Unique Identification Number and be type-certified. But unlike U.S. laws, Indian regulations forbid all flights where a drone goes beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator. 

The country also has a “No Permission, No Takeoff” policy, wherein drone pilots, through a digital platform, must submit a request to take off before every flight. Under that rule, each drone must include specific hardware, such as a real-time tracking beacon that communicates location data.

The E.U. is a bit more lax. EASA organizes drones into three categories—open, specific, and certified—each with its own set of rules. 

Drones in the "open" category must weigh less than 55 pounds (with the exclusion of those purchased before Jan. 1, 2023) and cannot operate near people or above an altitude of 400 feet—nor can they carry “dangerous goods” like blood transfusions or medical samples. These flights must also stay within the pilot’s line of sight.

The "specific" category has a few more hoops to jump through. These drones require a standard scenario approval from EASA or an operational authorization from a National Aviation Authority where operations will take place—and sometimes both. However, this category permits BVLOS flights and flights at higher altitudes. It also allows drones to drop cargo when making deliveries.

Finally, heavier drones or those completing high-risk trips fall under the "certified" category. As the name implies, these aircraft require airworthiness certification from EASA and the relevant national regulator. Pilots must obtain a special license to fly these drones, which are typically larger, operate in controlled airspace or carry “high-risk” payloads, like vaccines.

By and large, the FAA sees eye-to-eye with EASA when it comes to topics like remote identification—both regulators require most drones to be trackable. But there are some key policy discrepancies.

For one, the FAA does not have regulations addressing the operation of drones heavier than 55 pounds, which are covered under EASA’s certified category. And while there are restrictions in place for UAS below that weight, the FAA frequently grants waivers that skirt some of those rules, signaling a need for updated regulations.

That leniency is also evident in the agency’s policy on operations over people, which allows any certified drone to fly over people, and in certain circumstances at night, without an individual approval or waiver. Contrast that with EASA’s rule, which calls for special authorizations when operating over people.

Interestingly, though, the FAA has taken a slower approach to BVLOS regulations. As the agency works toward a firm rule on long-range trips that extend beyond the pilot’s view, it can only facilitate those operations—like cargo drone deliveries—through waivers.

In the E.U., it’s a different story. 

EASA’s U-Space regulation, which took effect at the start of January, gave member countries a new framework for BVLOS flights by designating airspace for complex operations to take place. These “U-Space” regions will be managed by air traffic services and certified providers, which will share data and coordinate with drone operators.

U-Space will be a massive undertaking, and it will need work to enable BVLOS flights without approval. But the ball is rolling – fast.

That brings us back to India. As things stand, the country’s drone regulations resemble those in the U.S. – heavily limited BVLOS flights, strict remote identification rules, and standardized type-certification requirements.

But in a few years, India’s airspace may look a lot like the E.U.’s.

“We have a comprehensive policy and regulatory framework to ensure that drones and drone operations are safe, secure, and green,” Adina-Ioana Vălean, the E.U.’s commissioner for transport, told Business Standard. “We also have a U-Space regulation, which we updated recently, to ensure that drones are integrated safely within air space management. And earlier this year, we adopted the Drones Strategy 2.0, which proposes concrete actions to support the deployment of a drone ecosystem by 2030.”

If Vălean’s comments are any indication, we could soon see an Indian version of U-Space or EASA’s three categories of UAS. That gives us an idea of how the country’s drone industry will shake out in the coming years. In the E.U., commercial operations are limited due to EASA’s stringent policies around safety—the case will likely be the same in India.

That stands in stark contrast to the FAA, which has encouraged commercial drone operations in the short term through individual waivers and approvals. But only time will tell which approach—hands-on or hands-off—yields greater success in the years to come.

Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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