China’s civil flight authority, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), has issued new rules applicable to civil unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones or UAS, weighing no more than 116 kg. The new rules are styled as the Provisions for the Operation of Light and Small Unmanned Aircraft (for Trial Implementation) (the UAS Operation Rules) and became effective on 29 December 2015, the date they were issued.
The UAS Operation Rules add to a substantial and growing body of new rules applicable to the rapidly developing UAS industry in China by setting forth what qualifies as lawful operation, with the aim of normalizing the authorized flying of UAS and preventing the unauthorized flying of UAS, which has been a frequently occurring problem in recent times.
The classification of UAS and the supervision measures set forth in the UAS Operation Rules are consistent with the direction of the development of the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration in the US (FAA) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Below we list and discuss the key regulations and new developments in the UAS Operation Rules.
“Size” matters: Classification of UAS based on weight and use
Light and small civil UAS are defined in the UAS Operation Rules as UAS with a maximum empty weight of 116 kg or less, with a maximum take-off weight of 150 kg or less, and a calibrated air speed of no greater than 100 kilometers per hour. The different classifications of UAS from Type I to Type VII under the UAS Operation Rules mostly depend on the weight and the use of the UAS. The specific classifications are set forth in the chart below.1
The UAS Operation Rules set forth the most regulation for UAS from Type II to Type VII. By contrast, the use of Type I UAS need not follow the specific, detailed requirements under the UAS Operation Rules, but instead generally just need to be operated safely and to avoid causing injury to others.
The Internet of Things for UAS: Real-time online systems to record flight data and prevent flight into prohibited areas
A key component of the UAS Operation Rules is the set up of an online real-time supervision system including the “UAS Cloud” and the “electronic fence”. The “UAS Cloud” is a dynamic database management system which monitors flight data (including location, altitude and speed) in real time and which has an alarm function for UAS flying into the electronic fence. The electronic fence is a software and hardware system in which specific areas are identified as prohibited and function to stop aircraft from entering such areas.
For UAS of Type III, IV, VI, and VII, the installation and use of the electronic fence and the connection to the UAS Cloud are required, and operators must report every second when in densely populated areas and every 30 seconds when in non-densely populated areas. Flight data recorded in the system should be stored for at least three months.
For UAS of Type II and Type V, only those operated within key areas and airport clear zones are required to install and use the electronic fence, connect with the UAS Cloud, and report every minute.
For UAS that are not required to connect with the UAS Cloud, the UAS Operation Rules still require clear information to be carried on each UAS, such as the name and contact details of the owners, for tracking and identification purposes. This set of requirements is similar to the registration requirements imposed by the U.S. FAA in its recently issued Interim Final Rule for light UAS weighing from 0.25 kg to 25 kg, and shows that the PRC authority is, in this respect, following a global trend to improve the administration of UAS in this size category.
Regardless of whether a UAS Cloud system is used, it is incumbent upon a UAS pilot-in-command to ensure that its UAS are operating in accordance with the requirements of relevant authorities and prevent the UAS from entering into any restricted areas.
Restricted areas under the UAS Operation Rules include airport obstacle control surfaces, prohibited areas, unauthorized restricted areas, and danger zones. Which specific areas qualify as restricted in practice are not set in advance, but are instead within the charge of the relevant authorities to determine. If a UAS is connected to the UAS Cloud, the restrictions will be shown in the UAS Cloud. If a UAS is not connected to the UAS Cloud, then its user should consult with the relevant authorities about the restricted areas.
The race to the cloud: Competing systems development
Since the UAS Cloud plays an important role in the administration of UAS operation, a chapter of the UAS Operation Rules specifies the requirements of UAS Cloud providers. A qualified UAS Cloud provider must have approval from the CAAC for a trial operation and meet the specific requirements of the local authorities and the military. Other than organizational and governance requirements, a dynamic database needs to be set up to supervise, record, and monitor the pilots and operators of UAS. And the providers should submit a report every six months to the CAAC to report the numbers of UAS and UAS operators, technology improvements, difficulties, accidents and potential accidents.
As the UAS Cloud may be provided by one or more providers, competing cloud systems are currently under development. For example, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of China (China AOPA) is working on a “UCloud” plan to strengthen the administration of the UAS operation, in which all users need to register their UAS, and which will include the installation of UAS SIM cards and mobile applications for both the UAS pilots and regulators. At the same time, the China AOPA is working on a “UCloud” plan to strengthen the administration of the UAS operation, in which all users need to register their UAS, and which will include the installation of UAS SIM cards and mobile applications for both the UAS pilots and regulators. Sources indicate that the UCloud plan has been launched for trial with members of the China AOPA, and it is expected to be officially opened to the public in 2016. With China AOPA’s coordination with the supervision departments, the examination and approval of UAS flight plans can be conducted using the UCloud application.
Look out below! UAS operators to insure for liability on the surface
UAS operators under the UAS Operation Rules must procure insurance for UAS covering liability for third parties on the surface. The addition of this rule in UAS Operation Rules is the first such explicit rule requiring such insurance, and marks an important advance in the regulation of UAS operation for dealing with accidents, which still occur with troubling frequency in this nascent and rapidly developing industry. Requiring such insurance is consistent with best practices, is based on to the standard required for aircraft operators generally under the PRC Civil Aviation Law, and is similar to compulsory requirements for UAS operations in the UK and Canada.
Other than insurance, the UAS Operation Rules do not have any other specific provisions for UAS operators, but these are expected to be addressed in separate rules. As of 30 December 2015, the CAAC has issued such rules for public comment in draft form, i.e., the Draft Interim Rules on the Administration of General Aviation Business Activities Using Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (the Draft UAS Business Rules). The Draft UAS Business Rules are specialized regulations for the operators of UAS business activities, and include among other things the requirements for business scope under China’s limited corporate activities charter regime and the conditions of entry.
Pulling rank: Pilots and pilots-in-command
The UAS operator must appoint a pilot, a pilot-in-command, and an observer for each UAS to take charge of and assist in the operation and safe flight of a UAS.
The pilot is the person who operates the UAS and has the responsibility for the safety of the operations during the period of operation. As expected, pilots must be capable and of sound mind: pilots are forbidden, for example, from operating a UAS within eight hours of consuming any alcohol, under the influence of any alcohol or medicine, or in any other situation where the pilot’s ability to work will impact flight safety. Specific qualification requirements for pilots, according to the different types of UAS, are already more generally set forth in the Interim Provisions on the Administration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft System Pilots issued on 18 November 2013.
The pilot-in-command is the pilot directly in charge of the operation of the UAS and has the right to make final decisions. The UAS Operation Rules set forth specific rules regarding the qualifications and responsibilities of the pilot-in-command in order to minimize danger to the public, comply with restricted area requirements, and engage in reporting to the CAAC. Importantly, in cases of emergency, a pilot-in-command is granted authority to deviate from the regulations of the UAS Operation Rules to address the situation, provided that the safety of ground personnel can be assured.
The observer is a trained person appointed by the UAS operator to visually observe the UAS and assist the pilot fly the UAS safely.
The above rules, together with another provision that prohibits careless or reckless operation, clearly show the authorities’ determination to prioritize and strengthen safety in the operation of UAS.
Flight specifications, emergency procedures and flight termination
The flight specifications are separate for the operation of UAS beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and within visual line of sight (VLOS). UAS flying within VLOS must be operated in the daytime, and air route priority must be ceded to other aircraft. In the U.S. and France, there are similar rules prohibiting the flights of UAS at night. However, under the Chinese rules, the prohibition only applies to UAS operating within VLOS, and not to UAS operating BVLOS.
For UAS flying BVLOS, air route priority shall be given to manned aircraft, and a certain framework for addressing emergencies applies. On the emergency planning side, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has a relevant regulatory standard, which requires, for example, direct return or landing at the nearest landing point, which are to be taken by reference by UAS operators. In confronting emergencies, pilots-in-command must execute the corresponding emergency plan, including the emergency recovery process, when a UAS operating BVLOS goes out of control. If a flight endangers other users in the same airspace, endangers persons or property on the surface, or the UAS is unable to continue the flight in accordance with the requirements under the UAS Operation Rules, the flight shall be terminated immediately. Upon the occurrence of an emergency, the pilot-in-command should report the relevant situation to the system if the UAS is connected to the UAS Cloud. If the UAS is not connected to the UAS Cloud, the pilot-in-command should make a report setting forth the people responsible, in accordance with the procedures given by relevant air traffic control service authorities.
The CAAC is making great efforts on the standardization of UAS operations in China. The detailed classification of UAS and the broad application of online real-time supervision systems are anticipated to lead to the provision of better services, ensure safer operations, and strengthen administration in practice. With these in place, along with the specifications of the obligations of the UAS operators, the UAS Cloud providers, and the UAS pilots and pilots-in-command, there is now a clearer regulatory framework which is better standardized and easier for operators to understand and follow. The UAS Operation Rules also create favorable conditions for the development of plant protection (agriculture/crop-related) UAS operations in China.
As to the involvement of online real-time supervision systems, this is expected not only to contribute to better services and more effective administration, but also to provide new opportunities for online system developers to enter into the UAS market. And, under a UAS Cloud system, new and up-start players in the UAS operation market will enjoy a level playing field for access to safety instructions and other relevant information and requirements.
Because of the rise of the UAS industry and the manufacturing of UAS in China, and the rapid development of technology in this area, the number of light and small civil UAS operating at a low altitude and a low speed is increasing rapidly, and it is essential that regulations keep pace. The UAS Operation Rules, as well as the recent Draft UAS Business Rules and the draft Provisions on the Administration of the Use of Low-Altitude Airspace, are a welcome step in this direction. We hope and expect that further standardization will continue in the future, including the adoption of a unified regulatory document at a higher legislative level in due course, and we look forward to further industry development in the launch and implementation of UAS technology and the use of UAS Cloud systems.
1 In practice, if the empty weight and take-off weight of a UAS are respectively within the parameters of different classifications among Type I to Type IV, it shall be classified as the type with higher requirements.