UK Drone Regulations: A Brief Guide to Flying Categories and Certifications
Credit: Wix Stock Library
Pilots in the United Kingdom are in a unique position in terms of drone regulations. In 2016, the UK voted in favor of leaving the European Union, and their exit has brought on significant changes. As of December 31st, 2020, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the UK’s aviation regulator, is no longer a member of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). There is a bright red banner alerting visitors to the UK-EU transition on every page of the CAA website. The banner reads: “References to EU regulation or EU websites in our guidance will not be an accurate description of your obligations or rights under UK law.” This transition has left some people confused about what rules they need to follow and where the up-to-date information is. While there is a lot of information, this breakdown will summarize the new UAS categories, types of certificates, and the certification process.
Towards the bottom of the CAA homepage, there is a Quick Links section. In that section, there is a blue quadcopter thumbnail that links to the CAA’s Unmanned aircraft and drones webpage. This page gives you access to information on registering to fly your drone, the different flying categories, and more.
Firstly, It's important to be aware of what category you’re flying in. Each category has its own rules and regulations that must be followed.
The new unmanned aircraft regulations are divided into three categories of operations:
The Open category is for low-risk flights such as flying in the countryside.
The Specific category is for higher-risk flights such as flying over an urban area. To fly in this category, you will need an operational authorization from the CAA.
The Certified category is for the flights of large unmanned aircraft with a risk level equal to that of manned aircraft. Such flights would include transporting goods above a city.
Note: Since UK regulations relating to the Certified category are still being developed and are not yet published, flights must follow relevant manned aviation regulations.
The Open category is split into three subcategories (A1, A2, and A3), each with its affordances and restrictions:
A1: You may fly over people (not a crowd) for a short time with a drone that weighs less than 250g.
A2: Depending on your drone’s weight or class, you must maintain a 30m distance from uninvolved people. This category also requires that you have an A2 Certificate of Competency.
A3: You must keep a horizontal distance of at least 50m from people and 150m from parks, urban areas, and populated areas.
You can find more in-depth information on the categories here: Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK
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A2 Certificate of Competency
As previously mentioned, the A2 Certificate of Competency, or A2 CofC, is the certificate that permits the operation of a C2 class drone in the A2 subcategory of the Open category of UAS regulations. The certificate certifies that you have a thorough understanding of the technical and operational countermeasures for ground risk (or the risk of a person being struck by a drone).
A remote pilot is required to hold an A2 CofC while:
Operating in the A2 subcategory
Operating an unmanned aircraft in the A1 subcategory
Note: This will only be allowed until June 30th, 2022 under the ‘A1 Transitional Provisions’ in Article 22 of the European Commission Implementing Regulation
Operating in the Specific category under the conditions of a published Standard Scenario (STS) or Pre-Defined Risk Assessments (PDRA) where the A2 CofC is specifically listed as an acceptable level of remote pilot competency for that STS or PDRA.
There are no practical flight test requirements for the A2 CofC. Instead, the CAA describes the procedure to obtain an A2 CofC as a “‘building block’ process of training and testing.”
This process begins with criteria that pilots must meet before attempting the A2 CofC written examination:
The successful completion of the CAA’s Drone and Model Aircraft online training course for basic remote pilot competency
The successful completion of the flyer ID theory test and the possession of the flyer ID number associated with that test
The completion of a period of practical flight training, either under the guidance of an RAE or under self-monitored circumstances, conducted within the operating conditions of subcategory A3 but simulating the operating situations associated with the A2 subcategory
The submission of a written self-declaration by the remote pilot stating that they have completed the above building blocks to a Recognised Assessment Entity (RAE) facility
After meeting those criteria, the exam is conducted under formal conditions at an RAE facility. The exam is composed of a minimum of 30 multiple-choice questions and covers the following subjects:
UAS flight performance
Technical and operational mitigations for ground risk
The exam is 75 minutes plus an additional 15 minutes for those who have a recognized disability or other needs (e.g., dyslexia or dyspraxia). You must earn at least 75% to pass. If you fail your exam, your retake will have a different set of questions. The RAE retains a record of each examination taken by a student for a minimum of 5 years.
Credit: Wix Stock Library
General Visual Line of Sight Certificate
Another significant change resulting from these new regulations is the removal of the Permission for Commercial Operations. In its stead, pilots can obtain the General Visual Line of Sight Certificate (GVC) for the Specific category. The GVC is another competency certificate for remote pilots. It was developed to be a single straightforward qualification that satisfies the requirements for VLOS within the Specific category. It has been described as PfCO-like and allows pilots to do more than the A2 CofC.
Like the A2 CofC, the CAA describes the procedure to obtain a GVC as a “‘building block’ process of training and testing.”
This process begins with two steps that pilots must complete before attempting the GVC examination and flight test:
You must complete the CAA’s Drone and Model Aircraft online training course for basic remote pilot competency.
You must pass the CAA’s online flyer ID test and have the flyer ID number.
Once you have accomplished those two things, you can move forward with taking the two required assessments: (1) the theoretical examination and (2) the practical flight test. RAE facilities conduct these assessments as well.
The theoretical exam is a closed book test that consists of at least 40 questions that will cover the following subjects:
UAS airspace operating principles
Airmanship and aviation safety.
These questions may be multiple-choice, long answer, or a mix of both. Test-takers must pass with at least 75%. After passing the exam, the GVC is valid for five years from the exam date. The practical flying test is designed to ensure that the remote pilot under examination can safely conduct a wide range of VLOS operations in the Specific category. This test includes topics covered in the theoretical exam syllabus in addition to those in the practical flight syllabus.
You can find more in-depth information on the A2 CofC, the GVC, and the assessment process here: Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK Airspace – The UK Recognised Assessment Entity
Tyesha Ferron is a writer and an artist based in Atlanta, Georgia. Specializing in digital art, Tyesha loves exploring the new ways technology intersects with culture and how drones make things more efficient and accessible for artists, hobbyists, and industry professionals. As a novice drone enthusiast, she continues to be impressed by what the drone community and industry can accomplish.