EU-wide drone regulations: Classes of drones explained

With the harmonization of drone rules within Europe, the EU has divided unmanned aircraft into different drone classes. In this article, I would like to explain as simply as possible which criteria play a role in the classification and what effects the classes have on the operation of drones. You will also find information about the rules for self-built drones and those without classification markings.

This article gives an outlook on the upcoming rules, but not all details for the practical implementation of the EU regulation have been clarified yet. The national authorities have time until the regulations come into force to clarify the open questions. Until then, the article does not claim to be complete. For a better understanding, you should definitely read the overview article on the European drone laws first.

The good news for us users is that the manufacturers are obliged to mark the drone with its class. This means that we don’t have to familiarize ourselves with the technical details before we decide to purchase a drone. The CE class is clearly defined and leaves no room for interpretation.

The EU has defined five classes of drones:

  • C0
  • C1
  • C2
  • C3
  • C4

Overview of aircraft classes

The higher the number of the class, the greater the risk when operating the drone. For each class, there are different technical requirements (e.g. weight and noise level). An overview of the specifications can be found in the following table, whereby I have only included the most relevant regulations.

Weight< 250 g< 900 g or energy < 80 J< 4 kg< 25 kg< 25 kg
Maximum speed19 m/s19 m/s
Remote identification system needed?no yesyesyesno
Maximum altitude120 m120 m or adjustable altitude limit 120 m or adjustable altitude limit120 m or adjustable altitude limit
Geo-awareness system needed?noyesyesyesno
Allowed maneuvers in Open categoryA1, A3A1, A3A2, A3A3A3
Peculiarities“Slow mode” necessaryMaximum characteristic dimension < 3 mNo automatic control modes

The remote identification system

Remote identification is a system in which the drone regularly sends out current flight data during the flight. Anyone interested in the transmission range can thus access the following data with their smartphone:

  • UAS operator number
  • Serial number
  • Position data and current altitude
  • Flight direction
  • Speed
  • Position of the pilot (if not possible, the starting point is transmitted)

This should make it much easier to prosecute violations.

The geo-awareness system

I think it is a really good idea that the member states should provide binding data on no-fly zones and restricted areas in the future. This data will then be made available in the same format throughout Europe. Class C1, C2 and C3 drones will have to retrieve this information and display warnings to the pilot before take-off if necessary. Pilots are obliged to always download the latest version of the database.

I hope that the geo-sensitization system will also take into account other zones such as nature reserves in addition to airspace.

Self-built drones and drones without classification

Drones that are certified and classified according to the provisions of the EU regulation carry a corresponding CE class marking. But especially in the time after the introduction of the law, there will still be devices that do not have such a marking. There are transitional rules for these cases.

Drones that were put into circulation before 01.01.2023 (i.e. sold for the first time) and do not belong to the above-mentioned classes may still be used in the Open category with restrictions:

  • Drones under 500 grams: may only fly under the conditions of subcategory A1, i.e. not above crowds of people, keep overflight of uninvolved persons to a minimum; the national aviation authorities regulate the requirements for pilots. In Germany, these drones may continue to be used without proof of knowledge.
  • Drones from 500 grams to less than 2 kilograms: may approach people up to 50 meters horizontally, pilots must complete training equivalent to subcategory A2. Alternatively, the drones may also be used under the conditions of subcategory A3. For this, proof of knowledge is required; from January 1, 2022, this must be the EU-regulated certificate of competence.
  • Drones from 2 kg to less than 25 kg: may only fly under the conditions of subcategory A3, i.e. only in areas where no uninvolved persons can be endangered. They must maintain a distance of 150 meters from properties. Pilots must undergo training equivalent to subcategory A3. From January 1, 2022, the EU-regulated certificate of competence is required.

As of January 1, 2023, you may also use your existing drone without the CE class mark. For drones weighing less than 250 grams, the rules of subcategory A1 will then apply, and for drones weighing 250 grams to less than 25 kilograms, those of subcategory A2 apply.

Even if you want to build a drone yourself, you do not have to comply with the above-mentioned classes but have to comply with other rules. Flights are possible in the Open category and, with permission, also in the Specific category. In the Open category, the rules of subcategory A1 apply to self-built drones weighing less than 250 grams and with a maximum speed of less than 19 m/s, and those of subcategory A3 to drones weighing less than 25 kilograms.

Are there any questions left unanswered? Then write to us in the comments and we will try to help you as much as possible.

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