European Drone Legislation: What Portugal is Doing Right

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Guest post by drone enthusiast and writer Pedro Dias, editor of Central Drones, the largest online Portuguese speaking drone portal.

Recreational drone usage has soared globally and with the emergence of companies in this industry with billions of dollars in revenues, it has become apparent that there is a real demand for this hobby.

However, as happens with most cutting-edge technology, the industry is facing intense scrutiny from legislators due to safety and privacy concerns, and is now at a crossroads: Will the governing bodies impose restrictive measures or will they allow the industry to thrive, driving all the possible professional applications and commercial growth?

To help frame this discussion, we believe the example set by Portugal is worthy of analysis.

Portugal has, perhaps surprisingly, been in the forefront of drone legislation –  anticipating EU wide legislation by proposing its own laws regarding unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in late 2016.

Most European countries, but not all, have followed suit, as the map below shows:


For any outsider, Portugal’s eagerness to get involved in the drone industry might be surprising, but for any follower of the country’s recent economic recuperation, the links should be apparent.

The past few years have seen Portugal’s tourism industry grow consistently in the double figure range. This growth has been mainly attributed to its affordable prices, low levels of terrorist occurrences and general sense of safety.  In addition, Portugal has positioned itself as an emerging tech hub, attracting talent from all over the world due to its moderate climate and affordable living.

Therefore, the country’s ability to keep the airports and public spaces safe from incidents in the sky is crucial in protecting the golden egg that is the tourism industry. Additionally, by keeping drone laws relatively liberal, the government also contributes to its desired image as an innovative and tech-friendly country.

As a result, from the very beginning in 2016, drone laws have been relatively relaxed, yet effective. For example:

  • If you want to record footage over a crowd of people, you need to ask for a permit that can be quite rigorous.
  • Despite that, the only other main flight restrictions are relative to the altitude (120 meters), the drone’s weight (25 kg) and flying in restricted areas (close to airports, military bases, etc).
  • Excluding the scenarios outlined above, you are free to fly as you wish.

All in all, the laws cover potential safety risks well whilst leaving space for hobbyists to enjoy their flights without drowning in bureaucracy, which is not necessarily the case in other European countries.

Germany, for example, requires special authorizations for flying at night, or flying a drone that weighs more than 5kg.  In addition, if the drone weighs between 2.5kg and 5kg, a proof of qualification is required, meaning that if you are a photographer trying to fly a DJI inspire, which weighs close to 3kgs, you will need to take a course and obtain proof of your qualification, regardless of the height you wish to fly or the area. This same qualification is needed in Italy for drones weighing more than 2kgs. You also cannot fly First Person View drones as these usually imply flying the UAV beyond your line of sight, which is not allowed in Germany.

This kind of legislative approach might be somewhat effective in securing the skies, but it also greatly limits exposure to the recreational drone industry, which grew 36% in revenues to 4.5 billion USD in 2016, and the enjoyment of the hobby.  This allows beginners to try out the hobby with lightweight drones; but is a deterrent to the organization of events, such as racing competitions.

It also deters the development of industries such as drone photography, maintenance of wind turbines, drone mapping, among others that require heavier drones: which in turn require licenses and certifications that can be both costly and bothersome.

In conclusion, Portugal’s approach to drone laws should be seen as an example to the rest of Europe. Besides being implemented relatively quickly, they strike a good balance between safety and enjoyment. We hope that as the European Union converges towards a unified set of rules for the recreational drone industry, evidence of Portugal’s successful approach is considered.

Pedro Dias is the editor of Central Drones, the largest Portuguese speaking drone portal. Founded in 2016, the websites shares articles, guides, and tutorials about commercial and professional drones.


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