This section deals with aviation regulation relevant to RPAS and any closely associated legislative matters.  Other related legislation is covered in the Legislation page.

Typically it is the responsibility of a state’s government (‘state' in this context refers to ‘countries’ such as in states being members of the United Nations Organization) to regulate transport, including aviation, in its jurisdiction.  In most cases a state government issues legislation about the high level rules and requirements for aviation regulation and appoints one or more organizations to implement the requirements of the legislation and to regulate the sector.  These organizations may be organic to the system of government (eg officials in a department such as Transport) or may be independent entities which receive government funding to deliver the required regulatory services.  The current British regulatory regime for RPAS is covered in the UK page.

Most state governments recognise the benefits of conforming to international standards and recommended practices (SARPs) to facilitate international safety management, interoperability and market opportunities, among a range of other aspects.  Such international standards might be regionally based, such as in the European Union, or globally, as with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).  Normally regional SARPs and other reglations are also consistent with those of ICAO.

In some cases, there are different approaches to regulation of private and commercial aviation as opposed to aviation owned and operated for state government purposes.  This latter group is often called ‘state aircraft’ and would typically include military aviation and other functions such as law enforcement and border and fishery patrolling.  Typically private and commercial aviation would be required to conform to national, regional and international regulations, as appropriate, while the regulation of state aircraft might be a solely national (state government) regime.


Licensing is commonly used as part of regulation.  In order to operate, an entity has to demonstrate that it is able to meet and committed to conform the the standards and other requirements of the relevant regulation.  Once the authority is content that the entity does so, a licence is issued to allow the entity to operate.  The licensing regimes for manned aviation have evolved over many decades and although normally mature and effective, they are subject to amendment and renewal in the light of sector developments.

RPAS pose some new issues for licensing, especially in the light of the very rapidly evolving nature of the RPAS sector.  These are set out in the Licensing page.


Standards exist in many areas, such as technical and procedural, and can greatly facilitate the development and implementation of regulation, in addition to other imperatives.  Many believe that legislation and regulation always follow technology and so there is a constant need to specify new standards to exploit technical innovation and to enable both safe and efficient operation of aviation. This is particularly so for the rapidly evolving RPAS sector.  More content is available in the Standards page.

Safety and Risk

Not having human life on board an RPA makes a big difference to safety and risk considerations.  Manned aviation safety has evolved over the last hundred years or so with the main focus on preserving human life on board the aircraft.  This meant that any risk of incident, either with other air users or with terrain or bad weather had to be mitigated to the required extent - to an acceptable level of risk.  This means not only that the airworthiness of the aircraft have to be to a very high standard but also that the risk to other airspace users and people on the earth’s surface is very low.  The majority of manned aircraft, once they have received safety certification, are authorised to fly in most environments, such as over centres of population.

Since there is no risk to human life on board an unmanned RPA, the risk assessment focuses on the risk to other airspace users and those on the surface.  The risk in remote areas with negligible air traffic and terrestial population density is therefore hugely lower than in the proximity of a major commercial aviation hub in a densely populated area.  The operational risk for an unmanned RPA is a function of the RPAS and, crucially, the operational environment (which includes many factors).  This enables optimising RPAS for specific operational scenarios delivering not only the required level of safety but also economic efficiency.  The greater  the operational risk, the greater the safety mitigation required from the RPAS.  More content on this subject is given in the Safety & Risk page.

RPAS and Model Aircraft

Traditionally, in many states, model aircraft have been regulated separately.  Model aircraft have been flown remarkably safely by enthusiasts for many decades.  They are flown for purely recreational purposes and the people who fly them typically enjoy controlling the the aircraft directly using a remote control console and communications channels which are pubicly available.  Most model aircraft fliers traditionally have shunned autopilots.  However, with the mass expansion of the consumer ‘drone’ market, this has changed.

RPA are flown to do ‘aerial work’ for (typically) financial gain or as part of commerical operations.  In most cases the operators are less interested in the pleasure of flying but more on the output delivered by the RPAS.  Thus the use of autopilots and other automation is the norm.  RPAS flown operated for gain have been regulated separately from model aircraft.

Several states and regions are now moving towards a unified approach to regulation of all RPAS, whether they are operated for gain (aerial work) or for recreation.  The mass expansion of the consumer ‘drone’ market means that many operations for gain, such as an estate agent taking property marketing photos or a local authority using RPAS imagery for land management can be effectively, indistinguishable from the purely recreational operation of keen photographers taking pictures of architecture or landscapes.

More reading on this website can be found in the following pages:


European Union




Safety & Risk

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