GeoZones on steroids Brussels: ED-269; U-Space and you

There has recently been an update issued by the EASA concerning their post-2022 pan-European drone regulation package. It includes the introduction of a standardized Europe-wide Geographical Zones Map they expect to be adopted without question and implemented piecemeal by all member states.

Although it is technically no longer a member of the European Union: post-Brexit Britain is not in any way exempt from this Brussels/EASA Diktat that came into force on January 1st 2023.

This EASA GZM map will be automatically loaded into the memory of your drone every time you boot it up. A process you will have absolutely no say in. If you attempt to bypass the firmware download: you will be unable to use your drone at all. The E.U/EASA GZM will be almost identical in looks to the DJI FLY SAFE geofencing map.

For those who are new to the hobby, Geofencing is a technique that ensures that a drone cannot take off – or fly into or through airspace that has been designated a restricted zone, for example near an Airport. Current geofencing also ensures that a drone pilot receives a warning for the presence of a zone where flight restrictions apply. At the moment – after a warning and a confirmation dialogue that determines that the pilot understands what the geozone is and accepts full responsibility for their flight - the drone pilot is free to conduct a flight in an area defined as either a Warning Zone or an Enhanced Warning Zone.

In Europe, that changed after January 1st 2023. From that date, any drone manufactured after January 1st 2023 has to have a mandatory ‘C’ label defining its classification (C0 though to C4):

In Britain - this mandatory ‘C’ classification is not a requirement. But the EASA GZM will still be adopted and in the UK, older drones that are sophisticated enough will have their firmware retro-altered to make them GZM Euro-compliant. They will be ‘upgraded’ whether the owner likes it or not.

New drones sold in Europe after this date will have to be manufactured with EASA compliant GZM geofencing as standard (with a few exceptions… military and police surveillance). With the older ‘legacy’ drones, the manufacturer must also ensure that their drone always has the most current digital drone map in its memory. The idea is that the map is automatically refreshed as soon as there is an active internet connection while the drone owner is unaware of the fact that the drone firmware is being flashed every time they power it up - with neither their knowledge nor their permission.

To ensure that all drones have the same information: an E.U standard had to be set for the digital drone map. The published reasoning behind this standardization was so that all makes of drones are able to process geo zones such as airports and other no-fly zones in an unmistakable way.

The over-arching aim of the EASA is that all drone apps display the standardized no-fly zones in the same manner and in such a way that even people without extensive aviation knowledge understand what they are looking at. For this reason, the EASA has developed a standard for the uniform processing of ‘geographical zones’. A working group, referred to by the cryptic title: EUROCAE ED-269, considered the selection of a format to process this form of geodata.

Here’s the interesting bit…

After January 1st 2023, member states (and the UK) are obliged to provide all no-fly zones and zones with other flight restrictions (such as low-flying areas) in this GZM format. Subsequently, all drones will have to be able to read the GZM digital drone map, regardless of the brand or model. Flight apps (such as the DJI GO4 or FLY app) that currently show drone pilots where they can and cannot fly will also have to switch to the new E.U/EASA GZM standard. That means that all apps will contain the same information, displayed in the same way.

This pan-European drone map will determine fly and no-fly zones as follows. Red areas for ‘hard’ no-fly zones: Yellow areas for restricted areas (e.g. low-level flight areas): Green areas for less restricted areas (such as model airfields or test areas). Lastly: there will be blue-outlined areas that will mark the presence of U-space regions. These blue zones can be set by altitude restrictions: for example: 0-120 metres AGL - prohibiting drone flight - but allowing light aircraft overflight.

Local authorities, regional councils and ‘National’ Governments Europe-wide (and in Britain) will be the authorities responsible for designating their own regional geozones in their own geographical areas. in Britain, this means County, Borough and potentially Parish or Town councils will be able to contribute their own ‘U-space area restrictions’ based on their own decisions as to whether they want to allow drone overflight as well as TOAL.

It is not beyond possibility that some Local Authorities will mark excessively large areas as no-fly zones for privately owned drones - more likely under that slippery catch-all guise of concerns for “security”, “privacy” and “data protection”, With the implementation of U-space restrictions: entire villages and towns will be able to be designated as no-fly zones.

In addition, E.U Member States (and the UK) must ensure that these chosen U-space blue zones are also communicated to manned aviation via official permanent NOTAMs.

U-space will provide those large blue-outlined areas on the European and British drone map within the next few years. In those areas, if you own and operate a camera drone and want to fly in any of the designated U-space zones, you will have to pre-register every flight and ensure that you are in communication with a U-space Service Provider (USSP) during the deployment so that the location and direction of flight of your drone can be communicated to other airspace users (so far: not dissimilar to the present restrictions and requirements that apply to flying in current DJI RED or BLUE no-fly zones) but these U-space zones will cover entire cities or large tracts of land deemed to be select urban areas, conservation zones, areas of outstanding natural beauty or areas classed as being of a “sensitive nature”. It is also pretty much a ‘given’ that the designated ‘U-Space Service Provider’ (the company that gets this peach contract) will charge you for their ‘services’ on a flight-by-flight basis.

With the full U-Space implementation scheme presently still under consultation: it is not possible to say with certainty exactly how this will affect independent drone pilots. But what is certain is the fact that within a few years of the implementation of the updated E.U drone regulations and the introduction of U-Space, both free-flight (DJI/Autel/Yuneec etc.) and autonomous flight drones (Skydio) that fall into the pre-2023 A4 LEGACY category will be frozen out of the air by bureaucratic red tape and restrictive regulation, or constrained to dedicated areas or parks.

It is also a ‘given’ that commercial drone flight home delivery companies will be able to purchase exemption certificates for the same 0-120 metre airspace you will have been frozen out of.

If you’re interested in this post and want the source documentation: head over to the EU/EASA websites and search “U-Space”. You won’t be disappointed by the sheer volume of official papers, but it might take you a week to read through it.