In one of our trips to the Pyrenees, specifically to the National Park of Ordesa and Monte Perdido, we were accompanied by a good friend who from time to time is encouraged to follow us in some of our activities. Once in the field, upon arriving at one of the beautiful corners of this area of the Pyrenees, he took a drone out of his backpack to take some photos and videos very cool, according to his own words.I instantly asked him in amazement, "Have you been given permission to fly the drone here?, His face told me everything, he didn't know the limitations to fly drones in protected natural areas.
Nowadays there are many different types of drones that we can buy, some of them so small and with so much image quality, that they do not pose a major problem to throw them in the backpack when we go hiking or out in nature. But do we really know or are we informed when we buy them how and where we can fly drones legally in Spain. A drone, although it may seem so, is not a toy and is subject to European and Spanish legislation that regulates the use of these unmanned aircraft. So let's see what we need to know to fly drones legally in Spain.
To begin with, the first thing to know is that anyone who owns a drone equipped with sensors capable of capturing personal data, i.e. a camera or microphone, must register at registration as flight operator with AESA (Spanish Aviation Safety Agency) and register your drone. In this way we will obtain an operator number that must be associated digitally or physically to any drone we own, in order to be able to identify us at any time. AESA is the Spanish agency responsible for managing the airspace in Spain. So as soon as we lift the flight 1 cm off the ground we are already inside the airspace and we must follow the rules that govern it, as long as we are not in an enclosed area such as a room in our house where the drone cannot go outside in no way.
Yes, indeed, the air that surrounds us when we are in nature or in the street, or even in our garden plot is not our property, it is airspace controlled by AESA and has its own legislation. This airspace can be divided into controlled and uncontrolled, i.e. areas where we cannot fly our drone, at least without permission, and areas where we can fly it. I know you are wondering how can I know if an area is controlled airspace or not? It's very easy, in ENARIE Drones, an agency dependent on AESA that has created a web site where you can easily find your way out of doubts by means of a representative map. It even shows you areas restricted to photographic flight, NOTAMs or warnings of risks or temporary limitations, etc... Unfortunately for recreational use, i.e. non-professional, it is not usual to obtain the necessary permits to fly our drone in controlled airspace.
We are not going to go in depth into the regulations governing the use of drones, as it would take a few articles. We will try to summarize the main features that define it and that we must know and comply with. The European regulations that came into force on January 1, 2021 lay the foundations of mandatory compliance for drone manufacturers and pilots. This legislation is complemented by the specific legislation of each member state and, broadly speaking, it is based on three fundamental pillars.
The current legislation catalogs drones or UAS "Unmanned Aerial System" with a CE marking depending on a series of characteristics ranging from their weight and speed, to certain functions and systems that integrate them and that manufacturers must take into account. Following these guidelines we can find drones with marking:
For our videos and photos we will stay for obvious reasons, with drones marked C0, C1 and C2 that correspond to aircraft with a maximum weight of less than 250 gr, 900 gr and 4 kg respectively.
Depending on the risk of the operation, three possible categories of air operations have been established: open category, specific category and certified category. As we can already imagine, the open category is the least risky and therefore the one we are included in. Within this category there are in turn three subcategories A1, A2 and A3, which define both the limits of the operations we can perform and the type of drone and pilot certificate we need. All of them share a series of common rules:
The remote pilot will always fly in VLOS mode, i.e. we have to see our drone at all times. If we use FPV first person flight devices or we have configured our drone in follow-me mode, we must have a spotter to support us to avoid accidents.
Flying above 120 m above the surface is not allowed. It is true that if we have an obstacle at less than 50 m we can extend this margin to overcome it.
We must not endanger manned aircraft, for example if we are flying our drone and the rescue helicopter comes, we will land immediately.
Overflight over concentrations of people is not allowed. There is no exact number of people, also except with drones marked C0 it is not allowed to fly over people even if it is only one, without certain permits and requirements. My recommendation is that even with a C0 drone you do not fly over people unless you have their explicit authorization.
All flight operators must have civil liability insurance, unless your drone is marked C0, although it would be recommended that you have it.
Is prohibited the transport of goods, especially dangerous goods.
The pilot is always responsible of maintain the safety of the operation and everything that may happen.
According to the current legislation, a pyramidal and cumulative training scale has been established for drone pilots, from level 0 to level 4 of training, with which the different certificates are obtained, according to which we can pilot one or another drone in one or another category.
At level 0, the most basic we can only fly drones with C0 marking. In this case we need to be familiar with the manufacturer's instruction manual and of course respect the current legislation, without further ado. Although my recommendation is that we perform the next level of training as it will allow us to know better what we can and can not do and better understand the piloting of our drone, it is also free and online.
At level 1 we will obtain after passing the training and the relevant online exam the A1/A3 certificate. As we can imagine we will be qualified for operations that meet the requirements of the subcategories A1 and A3 with drones marked C1, C3 and of course C0.
Although in general most of us will have more than enough with the previous levels, if we have a drone of more than 900 gr and we want to be able to fly without having to leave at least 150 m of horizontal distance with any person, building, etc... we will have no choice but to take the online theoretical exam corresponding to level 2 and be able to demonstrate that we have performed a self-practice with the specific maneuvers required by AESA. In this way we will obtain the A2 certificate and we will be able to perform operations of the A2 subcategory with drones of C2 marking or what is the same to be able to be between 50 and 10 m of horizontal and vertical distance from people and buildings, in low speed mode.
So much for the regulations governing UAS, but what happens when we want to fly our drone in a protected natural area? We have already seen in our blog that there are different figures of protection for natural areas, each with its own characteristics. We know that these natural parks, ZEPA or LIC areas have their own legislation and in many of them we can already find specific articles that regulate the flight of aircraft including drones. Moreover, in all of them it is forbidden to carry out activities that may disturb or harm wildlife, and a drone or " bumblebee-drone", if we translate it into castilian, is not usually very quiet and discreet to say the least.
Let me give you an example, in Spain we have 15 National Parks and in all of them except in two it is totally forbidden to fly drones without authorization, which on the other hand even for professional work is very difficult to get. In addition, in the other two, being ZEPA areas, we will not be able to fly our drone without prior consent.
We have already seen before that we have a tool, ENAIRE Drones, with which we must prepare our flight in advance and that tells us if the area in which we want to fly is controlled airspace or not. Well, this website also tells us if that area is within a protected natural area, if it is a ZEPA area or what type of area it is.
Another website of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is also available that offers us GIS cartography, where we can find out which administration to contact in each specific area, i.e., who is responsible in each case.
This Geo Portal works in a similar way to the other web that we have seen, once in it, a map of the whole territory will be displayed representing the different protected areas (SCI and SPA), each one with a different color. We will have available the information of both its legislation and to whom we must address to request the corresponding permission.
Surely at this point you are already thinking ... but if the coolest places where I want to fly my drone are practically all protected natural areas. Well, I don't want to discourage you but here comes the bad news, for recreational use it is difficult for the managers of these areas to authorize you to fly with your drone. As I say do not be discouraged you have a lot of equally beautiful places without limitations where you can fly your drone and although it is difficult to obtain authorization in the protected ones, it is not impossible. I know that now you are remembering the amount of videos made with drones that you see in social networks or even in many television programs and you are wondering how they do it. I am honest, I often ask myself the same question and I want to think that they have all the relevant permits, at least in our case if we have them. Even so I can also tell you that for example last year in Ordesa quite a few sanctioning files were raised for flying with drones, and the amounts of the sanctions are no joke.
In any case, whenever you fly your drone, in nature or anywhere, keep in mind that we share the airspace, both with other aircraft and with the different species of birds, regardless of whether it is a protected area or not. Therefore it is always important to keep a safe distance and stop flying if necessary. Imagine that a drone of a similar size to you or even bigger than you, is approaching you or your sons or daughters and is coming to circle around you, it would not be pleasant, would it? and it would even be dangerous, because now put yourself in the animals' shoes, they should not be very happy to be approached by something noisy that they do not know what it is.