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As the lorries queued at Dover, and the pandemic tightened its grip on the UK even further, you may have missed another turning point as 2020 became 2021. On 1 January, the UK’s drone regulations were tipped upside-down, leaving many commercial operators fumbling for the legislative panic button, or at least Google.

If you are an existing commercial operator in the UK, a ‘PFCO’ holder, this article is for you, and designed to tell you what you need to know about these changes.

So, what the heck just happened?

In short, the UK implemented drone regulations agreed between the EU Member States (we even used to be one apparently). This ‘EU Regulation Package’ passed into UK law in three parts:

The ‘Basic’ Regulation
Some general context and frameworks. Not significant for us.

The ‘Implementing’ Regulation
The meat in the sandwich, and the most important of the three documents. This deals with the basics of all drones are to be operated now and in the future, both in the UK and in the EU.

The ‘Delegated’ Regulation
Important, but not quite yet. This sets out standards for the manufacture of drones, and will in the future enable certain types of operation as long as a suitably designed and marked drone is being used.
e.g. ‘you can do x if you have drone type y’
However, at the time of writing no suitably certificated drones exist so we’ll revisit this in the future.

Do I need to Panic?

No. Absolutely not. The headline here is that if you flew a drone commercially on 31st December 2020, you can perform exactly the same task from 1st January 2021. Your qualifications are valid, and your Permission for Commercial Operation (PFCO) is valid. Well, assuming you were not unlucky enough to have had a 31st December expiry date. However, there are certainly some things to think about, and to plan for.

In other words, read on!

Does the PFCO Still Exist?

Yes. And no. No wonder people are confused about this.

The PFCO has been replaced by the ‘Operational Authorisation’ (OA). However, your current PFCO functions as an OA. When you renew your permission, you too will become the proud owner of an OA. However, don’t get too excited – your OA will give you exactly the same rights as your old PFCO did. It will just have a different title.

And – exciting news – you will have some extra allowances explicitly laid out:

  • Max aircraft mass increased to 25kg
  • 150m separation from open-air assemblies reduced to 50m
  • use of a ‘competent observer’ maintaining VLOS adjacent to the remote pilot now explicitly permitted
  • term SUA now replaced by ‘UAS’ (OK, not so exciting)

Thrillingly, you don’t even have to wait until your renewal to benefit from these opportunities, courtesy of this general exemption. Who said 2021 was no better than 2020?!

Hang on, what happened to the Air Navigation Order?

ANO fans, we bring good news. Rumours of its demise are premature.

The Air Navigation Order still exists (not least because it tells Easyjet what to do). However, the drone articles have been slimmed down because they were in contradiction to the new EU-derived legislation. In this Amendment the headlines were:

  • specific separation requirements removed (as these are covered in the new regulations and Operational Authorisation)
  • articles pertaining to registration deleted (also covered elsewhere)
  • new articles setting out police powers and sanctions for misuse of drones
  • yet more terminology changes (SUA>UAS)

Importantly, the over-arching Article 241 survives, and becomes more important than ever as a guide to what is and isn’t acceptable.

A person must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property.  

Air Navigation Order Article 241

Does this give me right to roam in the EU?

No. Sorry.

At the start of this process there was certainly some hope that UK operators would be able to work in Europe on their CAA documentation. Indeed, this was one of the stated aims of the process on the EU’s side. Alas (as Boris Johnson would say) Brexit has thwarted this ambition.

Whilst EU operators can indeed operate from state to state, there is a requirement for British operators to negotiate with a Member State to act as a ‘parent’ national authority. There’s still some hope that this process will be reasonably straightforward, especially for GVC, so things may be not all that bad.

Somebody Said the PFCO is now a Waste of time and Money

Here’s where it gets fun. The CAA has also opened a terrifying trapdoor under the feet of existing commercial operators, namely the Open Category. Remember all those pesky estate agents flying Mavics without PFCOs? Well now they can just carry on – damn them! In most cases they will need the new ‘A2 Certificate of Competency’ (A2CofC) but it’s as cheap as chips. In fact, thanks to Coptrz, it’s even cheaper than chips now.

Should you get an A2CofC and be done with your PFCO/OA? If you’re in any way a serious commercial operator then almost certainly not. But someone’s already written an excellent article going through all that.

Things you DO need to do

  1. Get a Flyer ID – if you were previously taking advantage of the exemption for commercial operators to take the CAA Drone and Model Aircraft Theory Test then sadly you’re free ride is over and it’s time to knuckle down.
  2. Renew your Operator ID – as the scheme is now just over a year old, you likely need to renew your ID to remain legal.
  3. Update your Operations Manual – when renewing your permissions (now OA) the Operations Manual must now take full account of the new regulations which means 2021 sees the biggest change so far to the document. Ideally, this should be done immediately.

Thing you MIGHT WANT to do

  1. Convert to GVC – this is not yet a requirement but you will have to do this by the end of 2023. It’s a painless process and we can provide a conversion if you would like to take it now.
  2. Take the A2CofC – currently the benefits of holding an A2CofC are very marginal. However, when ‘C’-marked drones arrive into the market (likely this year) you may find there are some situations where an A2CofC is beneficial.
    If you would like to take the A2CofC, do get in touch. We hold an instructor-led A2CofC once a month and pride ourselves on delivering a tailored training product to all our customers.