European Parliament clears drone regulations for takeoff

Owners of drones weighing over 250 grams will have to register them under proposed EU rules

Regulations to protect people from falling drones moved a little closer to takeoff at the European Parliament on Thursday.

Ensuring drone safety took on a new urgency this week, with GoPro's recall of its Karma drone after unexplained mid-air power failures caused a number of them to drop out of the sky.

Under the European Union's proposed regulations, drones will have to be registered so that their owners can be identified. While that won't in itself stop drones from falling, it could lead pilots to take their responsibilities more seriously, legislators hope.

A 1-kilogram drone like the Karma falling from as little as 11 meters (around three stories) could kill even someone wearing a safety helmet, according to a calculator developed by the Dropped Object Prevention Scheme, which promotes safety in the oil and gas industry.

Parliament wants to set the threshold for drone registration at 250 grams, almost twice the weight of an iPhone 7. Drones weighing less than that would probably have to fall on someone wearing protective headgear from 40 meters (12 stories) or more to cause a fatality, according to the DROPS calculator -- but a careless or irresponsible drone pilot wouldn't need to kill someone to find themselves in trouble. Much shorter drops could cause injury or property damage.

Legislators are hoping to remove other risks with the regulations, including terrorism. They believe that requiring drones to be identifiable and registered will be sufficient to prevent their use in deliberate attacks.

The regulations, when they enter effect, will give additional powers to the EU's executive body, the European Commission, to set rules on maximum operating altitudes and no-fly zones, and to require manufacturers to enforce such rules in drone software.

Parliament's transport committee gave its support to the draft drone regulations as part of an update of the EU's civil aviation safety rules, which apply only to aircraft weighing over 150 kg, whether piloted or not. Lighter craft are covered by national laws today.

Parliament must now reach agreement on a final draft with the European Council, which is composed of the heads of the states who currently legislate on drone use in the EU's 28 member countries.

The Commission hopes that, by legislating to make European drones safer, it can boost to the continent's aviation industry. It forecasts that the civil drone market will be worth about €15 billion (US$16.3 billion) annually within 10 years, and that it will employ around 150,000 Europeans within 25 years.

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Peter Sayer

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