Gatwick airport was recently forced to close its runways because of suspected drones entering the airspace. This incident led to the cancellations of hundreds of flights. A few days later, Santa Claus put drones under the Christmas tree of thousands of families.
These events serve as a reminder of the main rules currently applicable to the use of drones in Belgium. For the moment at least, the use of pilotless drones is forbidden in Belgium. For piloted drones having a maximum take-off mass (“MTOM”) of less than 150 kg the relevant legislation is the Royal Decree of 10 April 2016 on the use of manned aircraft in Belgian Airspace (the “Decree”).

Drones for Recreational Use
There are no special requirements for drones having a MTOM of less than 1 kg if their use meets all the following seven criteria:

  1. they are used exclusively for leisure purposes;
  2. they fly at a height of maximum 10 meters;
  3. they fly above private land;
  4. they do not fly within a 3 km radius of airports or aerodromes;
  5. they do not fly above industrial complexes, prisons, the Zeebrugge LNG terminal, nuclear facilities, or any outdoors gathering of people;
  6. the user undertakes to not compromise the safety of other aircraft and/or of people and property on the ground;
  7. the user respects applicable privacy laws.

An App called “DroneGuide” and developed by Skeyes and the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority (BCCA) informs recreational drone remote pilots where they can legally fly.

Drones for other use
For all other uses than Recreational Use, the Decree provides (i) common rules and (ii) specific rules depending on the category to which the use of drones belongs. Category 2 covers the use of drones involving a low risk and Category 1 covers the use of drones involving a moderate or an increased risk.

i. Common rules
Drones must be registered with BCCA or with a national aviation authority of another Member State. The operator or, failing that, the remote pilot, must have insurance covering third party liability. Privacy laws must be respected and the pilot must respect air traffic rules (i.e. rights of way, visual contact, etc.)

The Decree also provides rules concerning the maintenance of the drone and the preparation of the flight.

The following activities are forbidden for drones:

  1. flying on ATS routes (i.e. air routes designated for channelling the flow of air traffic);
  2. transport of passengers;
  3. carriage of mail or cargo;
  4. dropping objects or spraying;
  5. towing;
  6. acrobatic flight;
  7. flying in formation.

ii. Specific rules for Category 2
Category 2 covers the use of drones having a MTOM of less than 5 kg for activities such as photography, surveillance and observation which involve a low risk for airline safety and persons or property on the ground.

To be authorized to operate flights of Category 2, the pilot must obtain from BCCA a pilot certification. In order to obtain this certification, the pilot must be at least 16 years of age, follow a theorical training course and pass a practical test with an appointed examiner.

iii. Specific rules for Category 1
Category 1 covers all uses of drones which are potentially liable to endanger airline safety and/or persons or property on the ground.

In order to perform flights of Category 1, the pilot must obtain from the BCCA a pilot licence. To obtain this licence, the pilot must be at least 18 years of age, pass a theorical test, have specified drone experience acquired under the supervision of an appointed instructor and pass a practical test with an appointed examiner.

Drone flights of Category 1 are subject, depending the risk, to prior authorization or to prior declaration.

The development of DronePort, a 28ha Belgian industry park dedicated to the drone industry, will hopefully encourage the Belgian legislator to be a pioneer in this field of legislation, including notably the future regulation of pilotless drones.

By Charles Price & Sébastien Popijn