Remote pilot or UAS operator? To-ma-to, to-mah-to or significant difference? An international legal perspective

The terms remote pilot and UAS operator are often used interchangeably, however there is a significant difference between the two. It might seem like nit-picking, but in a legal context using the correct term is of vital importance. The following article will provide an insight into the legal distinction that is made between these terms in various national legislations.

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In some countries, - such as the UK, Australia and Belgium -  the term UAS operator is reserved for the person, organisation or enterprise that is engaged in or offering to engage in an aircraft operation. In other words, the term refers mainly to the legal entity that intends to operate one or more UAS. For these operations, the enterprise relies on remote pilots to manipulate the flight controls of the aircraft during flight time. In that case, this remote pilot constitutes a natural person who manually operates the UAV or monitors the course for an automatic flight. The UK (CAP 722, p. 18-19) and Australia (AC 101-01v2.0, p. 8) have almost similar definitions, whereas Belgian regulation mentions ‘bestuurder van een RPA’ (article 1(7) KB 10 April 2016) and ‘exploitant’ (article 1(16) KB 10 April 2016). Both entail the same scope as remote pilot and UAS operator.

Not all states however, make this distinction. With the sole mentioning of a ‘Dronefører’ in Denmark (§2(7) Order No. 788) and a ‘Steuerer das unbemannte Fluggerät’ in Germany (§21a(4) Verordenung zur Regelung des Betriebs von unbemannten Fluggeräten), these countries prefer to make a reference only to the person who manages or initiates an operation with drones.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) aims to end the current ambiguity surrounding done operations and created a newly proposed notice. This Notice of Proposed Amendment (NPA 2017-05 (A)) handles the introduction of a regulatory framework for the operation of drones under 150kg. The proposed regulation clearly states in article 2(h) and (dd) the difference between a remote pilot and a UAS operator. The latter means “any legal or natural person who operates or intends to operate one or more UAS” and a remote pilot is “a natural person responsible for safely conducting the flight of a UA by operating its flight controls”. The European regulator seems to be inspired by the common-law interpretation and distinction between the legal entity and the natural person who controls the device during the flight.

 EASA’s NPA is a notable first step in the effort of ending the ambiguity in the current regulation landscape for drones. However, since a difference between regulations regarding these terms still exists in the local regulations, it would be wise to get acquainted with your local laws before selecting the term “remote pilot” or “UAS operator”. 

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By Luna Vanderispaillie, Aviation Legal Counsel