Will the EASA A2 Category be useful?
What is exciting about the A2 category?
As the new EASA regulations came into force on 31 December 2020, I thought it was a good time to write an article on one of the highly anticipated areas of the new legislation, the A2 category. I have seen several good articles on the new EASA regulations from others in the industry, most of which have provided a great summary of the new regulations. However I haven't seen any articles which have gone into detail on the A2 category to see how useful it will be for the average operator.
The reason why the A2 category is so interesting is that C2 category drones (<4kg) are able to operate to distances as small as 5m away from people, without the operator having to apply to the CAA for a special exemption (operational safety case or OSC). This sounds too good to be true surely...so what is the catch?
If you have tried reading the regulations in full (list at the bottom of this page), you will realise that you need a good week of heavy reading, and a lot of patience cross referencing documents to be able to even begin to comprehend what it means for your business. I have done the hard work for you, and picked out all the most important information to see if the A2 category is the right one for you.
Author: James Dunthorne
The A2 category in a nutshell
The A2 category will allow an operator to fly any C2 category drone 30m horizontally from uninvolved people. However the ruling states that this distance can be reduced down to as little as 5m so long as:
The aircraft is fitted with a low speed mode, restricting it to 3m/s
The aircraft is flown safely given the current weather conditions
The aircraft can be flown safely when considering its performance
The overflown area has been sufficiently segregated (cordoned)
In order to operate in this category, your pilots will only need to complete the A2 certificate of competency (A2CoC) examination which consists of a 30 question multiple choice test. This training however uncovers a special mitigation which is required in order to fly within this category - the "1:1 rule". This rule is essential to understanding how useful the A2 category will be, and will be discussed later in this article.
Once training is completed, you will be able to submit a declaration form to the CAA to say that you meet the requirements, and you will then be able to fly pretty much anywhere you want, won't you? Not so fast! Lets first look at what drones can fly within the A2 category...
What drones can fly in the A2 category?
As a simple answer, any C2 category drone is able to fly within the A2 category. And so the next logical step is that we now need to explore what a C2 category drone is...
If you look at the EASA delegated act (Annex - part 3), you will see a list of requirements which C2 category drones need to meet. The most notable requirements are:
It must weigh less than 4 kg
It must have an option to restrict the aircraft to 120m altitude
It has to be made to decent manufacturing standards (CE marking)
The aircraft and propellers must be designed to minimise harm to people
It must have a remote ID function so that the drone can be tracked and identified using a mobile phone
Be equipped with geo-awareness (also known as geofencing to DJI pilots)
Must be equipped with its C2 category identification label
(the full list of requirements is included in part 3 of the Annex of the EASA delegated act)
At the time of writing, not a single drone which is currently on the market has been approved within the C2 category. None of your current drones are likely to meet the C2 category requirements. The CAA clarified this in their CAP1789 document:
"clearly manufacturers will need time to create products that are compliant to the standards and it is unlikely that it will be possible to purchase a compliant device immediately" - CAA
DJI have been testing their direct drone to phone remote ID app, but this is also a requirement for the C1 category, and so it is hard to draw many conclusions regarding what they are going to release this year. Also, bear in mind that any of the larger drones within the C2 category (Phantom and Inspire) are likely to need to have some form of robust propeller guards (not the kind of flimsy guards you can currently buy), and so this might take a little more time to develop and obtain EASA approval.
When will I be able to buy a C2 category drone?
It is likely that some of the larger manufacturers (such as DJI) are currently working hard to manufacture drones to meet the EASA standards before the deadline. Drone manufacturers will likely release EASA compliant drones in the foreseeable future. But how long will this take, and will they be commercial grade?
It is very likely that within the next 2-3 years we will see some C2 compliant drones being released, however it is very difficult to say when and what they might be. It is possible that manufacturers will focus their efforts on releasing smaller, consumer grade drones first within the C1 category, as they tend to sell in much higher numbers. This could mean you will have to wait longer for a useful commercial grade drone for the A2 category such as a Phantom and Inspire. Conversely it is possible that there will be a flurry of releases of both consumer and commercial grade drones over the next 6 months. Let's just remember that the smaller Mavic style drones are becoming useful for many more applications, however they are still limited in terms of data quality. Only you will be able to decide if these are useful for your business.
Overall, and as a summary to the question posed: will you be able to buy a C2 category drone soon? The answer is yes, and likely to be sometime this year. Will it be useful to use for commercial work? This will depend on your application, as it is more likely that DJI concentrate their efforts on the smaller drones first. If basic lower quality imagery meets the needs of your application then it certainly will.
If, however, you like dealing with business certainty, then the only business certainty you have right now is that nothing currently meets EASA standards and will only be able to be operated in the transitional category.