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Summary

The use of civilian drones in France is governed by two recent regulations that came into force on January 1, 2016. These regulations separate civilian drone use into three categories: hobby and competition flying, flying for experimental and testing purposes, and “particular activities,” which essentially means everything else, including commercial use of drones. Drones of all categories are subject to strict geographic restrictions, the main purpose of which is to protect people, property, and other aircraft. Drones may not be flown over public areas of urban zones without governmental approval, and may be flown over private property only with the owner’s authorization. Drones are required to fly under certain altitudes, and these altitude limits are substantially lower in the vicinity of airfields. Absent special authorization, drones are entirely forbidden in certain zones, such as military installations and other sensitive sites, but also historical monuments and certain national parks and natural reserves. Violation of prohibited airspace is punishable by jail time and heavy fines.

Drones flown for hobby and competition purposes are subject to certain weight and performance limits. Lighter and less powerful hobby drones may be flown by anyone, but heavier and/or more powerful ones may be flown only under authorization of the ministry in charge of civil aviation. Drones flown for experimental or testing purposes also require government authorization if they weigh more than 25 kilograms.

Drones flown for “particular activities,” which include commercial purposes, are regulated on the basis of four different types of scenarios. Different rules apply depending on which type of scenario the drone is to be used for, though many rules apply to all four scenarios. Many drones used for “particular activities” require a certification of design in order to receive authorization to fly, and all must comply with defined safety requirements. Furthermore, the operation of a drone for “particular activities” requires that the operator declare these activities to the government authorities, and certain activities require express approval. Pilots of drones for “particular activities” must have a level of knowledge and training that depends on the type of scenario for which the drone is to be used, with some situations requiring a full pilot’s license.

I. Introduction

The use of civilian drones in France is principally governed by two recent regulations: the Arrêté du 17 décembre 2015 relatif à l’utilisation de l’espace aérien par les aéronefs qui circulent sans personne à bord (Order of December 17, 2015, Regarding the Use of Airspace by Unmanned Aircraft) (Airspace Order),[1] and the Arrêté du 17 décembre 2015 relatif à la conception des aéronefs civils qui circulent sans personne à bord, aux conditions de leur emploi et aux capacités requises des personnes qui les utilisent (Order of December 17, 2015, Regarding the Creation of Unmanned Civil Aircraft, the Conditions of Their Use, and the Required Aptitudes of the Persons That Use Them) (Creation and Use Order). [2] These two orders replace regulations from 2012 that were considered obsolete and inadequate. [3] Both of these orders came into force on January 1, 2016. [4]

The current regulations apply to “aircraft that move without any person on board.” [5] The order regarding the use of airspace does not apply to tethered balloons, kites, or military drones. [6] The other order, which aims to regulate the creation of drones, their conditions of use, and the requirements for operators to receive authorization to fly them, does not apply to free-flying balloons, tethered balloons that stay below an altitude of 50 meters and have a payload of no more than 1 kilogram, rockets, kites, and aircraft used in enclosed and covered spaces. [7]

The Creation and Use Order provides for three categories of drone use: (1) hobby and competition flying, (2) flying for experimental and testing purposes, and (3) “particular activities” (activités particulières), which are defined as any use that does not fall into categories (1) or (2). [8] The Order specifies that the meaning of “particular activities” is not limited to drone use within the context of a commercial transaction. [9] It would appear that in practice, however, this category would primarily encompass commercial use. Each of these categories is governed by a different set of rules.

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II. Airspace Limitations

Drones are subject to strict geographic restrictions, the purpose of which is to protect people and property, as well as other aircraft. [10] They may not be flown over public areas of urban zones, except by authorization of the local prefect. [11] They may, however, be flown over private areas with the permission of the property owner, so long as certain speed and altitude limits are respected. [12]

The drone must fly at a speed suitable for limiting the risks to others if there is a loss of control. [13] Within authorized areas, drones must not fly higher than 150 meters above the ground, or higher than 50 meters above any artificial obstacle more than 100 meters in height. [14] Within certain zones where military training exercises may occur, and during the times when those zones are active, drones are limited to an altitude of 50 meters. [15] Drones are entirely forbidden from certain zones, such as military installations, nuclear power plants, historical monuments, hospitals, prisons, and certain national parks or natural reserves, absent prior authorization. [16]

Drones are not allowed to fly in the immediate vicinity of an airfield, and must adhere to strict altitude limits in the surrounding zone, absent authorization from the airfield’s operator. [17] For the purposes of these regulatory provisions, the area surrounding an airfield is divided into three zones, the dimensions of which depend on the type of airfield at the center.[18] For example, if a runway is less than 1,200 meters long and is not equipped for instrument approach procedures, the zone where drone flying is entirely prohibited (except with the airfield operator’s permission) extends 5 kilometers from either end of the runway, and 0.5 kilometers from either edge of the runway. In the zone that extends from 0.5 to 3.5 kilometers from each edge of the runway, drones may not fly at an altitude of more than 50 meters without the airfield operator’s permission. Finally, in the zone that extends from 3.5 to 5 kilometers from each edge of the runway, drones may not fly at an altitude of more than 100 meters without authorization. [19] Airfields that have longer runways, are equipped for instrument approach procedures, or are used for ultralight aviation, and heliports have similar restrictions but with differences in distances and altitude limits. [20]

Drones may not be flown at night, [21] unless the pilot or operator obtains special authorization from the local prefect. [22] Drones flown for hobby and competition purposes may fly at night within specific preauthorized areas. [23] Furthermore, drones must not fly in clouds. [24]

Manned aircraft always have the right-of-way over drones. [25] Additionally, drones are not allowed to fly in the vicinity of fires or accident zones, so as to avoid hampering emergency and rescue services. [26]

Flying a drone over a prohibited area, by mistake or by negligence, is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of €15,000 (approximately US$17,070).[27] Intentionally flying over a prohibited area is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of €45,000 (approximately US$51,200). [28] Furthermore, unauthorized use of photographic equipment over a prohibited zone is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of €75,000 (approximately US$85,350). [29]

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III. Hobby and Competition Drone Flying

A. Subcategories and Authorization to Operate

Hobby and competition drones are divided into two categories. [30] Category A drones weigh no more than 25 kilograms, and either have no engine or are powered by an engine that is under specific power thresholds (for example, a combustion engine of no more than 250 cm3, or an electric engine of no more than 15 kW). [31] In an exception to these limitations, tethered drones fall into category A regardless of any propulsion they may have, so long as they weigh no more than 150 kilograms. [32] Any drone that does not fall into category A is considered to be a category B drone.

Category A drones may be flown by anyone, and do not require any authorization documents as long as the regulatory parameters are respected (flying only in permissible areas, no flying by night, etc.). [33] Category B drones, however, cannot be flown without authorization from the ministry in charge of civil aviation, and only the individuals who are specifically listed on the authorization document may fly the drone. [34] Before granting authorization, the ministry is to verify the drone’s airworthiness as well as the pilot’s aptitude to fly it. [35] The authorization is valid indefinitely, so long as the conditions under which it was given are still true. [36] Authorized pilots must annually send a statement confirming that the drone is still in compliance with the conditions under which the authorization was granted. [37]

B. Flying Conditions

The general rule is that drones should stay within their pilot’s line of sight. [38] However, a drone may be flown outside of the pilot’s line of sight if a second person keeps it in view while it is outside of the pilot’s view. [39] The pilot, or other persons watching the drone while it is out of the pilot’s view, must always be able to ensure that the drone is flying in safe conditions and be able to take control of the drone if need be. [40] If the drone weighs no more than 2 kilograms, travels no more than 200 meters from its pilot, and flies no higher than 50 meters, it is possible to fly outside of the pilot’s line of sight as long as another person keeps it in view and is able to inform the pilot of dangers in real time. [41] Finally, French regulations allow the flight of drones that are able to fly autonomously by following atmospheric movements, as long as they weigh less than 1 kilogram and fly for less than eight minutes. [42]

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IV. Flying Drones for Experimental and Testing Purposes

Annex II of the Creation and Use Order applies specifically to drones that are flown for experimental or testing purposes—that is to say, prototypes—or drones flown in order to develop a new technology or modified to go beyond the parameters they were initially designed for. [43] Flying such drones requires a special permit, to be provided by the ministry in charge of civil aviation. [44] The application for this permit must include a description of the proposed conditions of the experimental flights, and of the measures taken to ensure the safety of third parties both on the ground and in the air. [45] Drones that weigh no more than 25 kilograms do not require a special permit as long as they fly during daytime, within the pilot’s line of sight, no farther than 200 meters from the pilot, outside of any populated area, and at least 50 meters away from any person who is not involved in the drone’s operation. [46] The other restrictions on flight described in Part II above also apply to experimental drones.

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V. Other Drone Activities (“Particular Activities”)

Annex III of the Creation and Use Order applies to drones that are flown neither for leisure and competition, nor for experimentation and testing purposes. [47] French regulators essentially made “particular activities” a sort of catchall category by not explicitly defining such activities. It appears, however, that this category primarily aims to apply to the commercial use of drones.

The following rules apply to drones that have a mass of less than 150 kilograms. For drones of 150 kilograms or more, the ministry in charge of civil aviation is to define the authorized flight and use conditions on a case-by-case basis; such drones are subject to regulation at the European Union level. [48]

A. Four Basic Scenarios

The regulations laid out in Annex III of the Creation and Use Order are based, to a great extent, on four categories of situations (referred to as “scenarios” in the regulation), designated as S-1, S-2, S-3, and S-4. [49] These categories are defined as follows:

  • S-1: Using a drone outside a populated area, without flying over any third party, staying within the pilot’s line of sight, and within a horizontal distance of no more than 200 meters from the pilot.

  • S-2: Using a drone outside a populated area, where no third party is within the area of operation, within a horizontal distance of no more than 1 kilometer from the pilot, and not falling within the definition of S-1.

  • S-3: Using a drone in a populated area, but without flying over any third party, staying within the pilot’s line of sight, and within a horizontal distance of no more than 100 meters from the pilot;

  • S-4: Using a drone outside a populated area, but not in a manner falling within the definitions of S-1 or S-2. [50]

Some of these scenarios place restrictions on the type of drone that can be used in them. In an S-2 scenario, only drones weighing 2 kilograms or less may be flown at an altitude of more than 50 meters. [51] Only tethered drones or untethered drones weighing no more than 8 kilograms may be used in an S-3 scenario. [52] Furthermore, only drones weighing 2 kilograms or less may be used for an S-4 scenario, and this use must be limited to measurement taking, aerial photography, observation, or surveillance. [53] Finally, tethered aerostats that fly autonomously must abide by the same rules as nonautonomous tethered aerostats in scenarios S-1 or S-3. [54] With the exception of tethered aerostats, drones that fly autonomously may not be used for “particular activities.” [55]

B. Certification of Design and Required Safety Features

The following drones require a certification of design (attestation de conception) in order to be flown: drones of more than 25 kilograms, drones used in an S-2 scenario, drones of more than 2 kilograms used in an S-3 scenario (except for tethered aerostats), and drones used for an S-4 scenario. [56] A certification of design is granted by the ministry in charge of civil aviation on the basis of an application that shows that adequate analysis and tests have been conducted to ensure that the drone is safe to use as proposed. [57] Drones that do not require a certification of design must nonetheless comply with the same safety requirements, and their operators must be able to demonstrate compliance if so asked by the government authorities in charge of civil aviation. [58]

The application for a certification of design must include a checklist of safety checks to be done before each flight, the drone’s weight limitations, restrictions with regard to weather conditions, programmed safety mechanisms, and emergency procedures. [59] The application must also include a maintenance manual, the radio frequencies used by the drone, and descriptions of the measures available to protect third parties. [60] The measures to protect third parties must be able to limit the impact energy to 69 joules if the drone drops from its maximum operational altitude, and the pilot must be able to trigger them even if the automated systems on board the drone malfunction. [61]

There are also a number of safety requirements that apply specifically to certain types of drones. For example, aerostats may use only inert gases, [62] and the tethers of tethered drones must comply with defined resistance requirements. [63] For all untethered drones, the pilot must be informed of the aircraft’s altitude on the basis of a barometric instrument, and there must be a programmable system to automatically prevent the drone from going beyond a maximum altitude even if the pilot instructs it to do so. [64] The pilot of an untethered drone must also be able to make it land at any moment by cutting its propulsion, and there must be a system for the drone to automatically initiate a landing procedure if it loses contact with the remote control. [65] The initiation of such an automatic landing may be preceded by a wait procedure to give the pilot an opportunity to reestablish contact, but this wait time must be short enough to minimize the chances that another malfunction could occur. [66]

Furthermore, there are a number of safety requirements that apply specifically to certain types of drone uses. For example, a drone to be used in an S-2 scenario must comply with the following requirements in order to obtain a certification of design:

  • The pilot must have access to information on the position and movement of the aircraft in real time, so as to ensure that it does not go beyond the intended limits of its flight.

  • The drone must have an automatic system to prevent it from going beyond the horizontal distance limits of the flight, or must have an alarm system to warn the pilot when it goes beyond those limits.

  • The function to stop propulsion in flight, as required of all drones used for “particular activities,” must be independent from the on-board automatic mechanisms that control the aircraft’s flight path.

  • There must be an on-board system to record the essential parameters of the flight, such as location, altitude, and quality of the control signal, in order to allow an analysis of the last twenty minutes of flight. [67]

Similarly, heavier-than-air drones of more than 2 kilograms that are to be used in an S-3 scenario must be equipped with a system to protect third parties, which is supposed to automatically activate if the drone lands by itself following a loss of contact with the pilot. [68] Heavier-than-air drones of more than 4 kilograms must, in addition, have equipment to ensure that the pilot can know the aircraft’s speed. [69] The system to protect third parties from the fall of heavier-than-air drones of more than 4 kilograms must also automatically stop the propulsion system, the control link for that emergency system must be independent from the drone’s main control link, and there must be an audible alarm to warn of the drone’s fall. [70]

Failure to comply with these requirements is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of €75,000. [71]

C. Conditions of Operation

Operation of a drone for “particular activities” requires that the operator make a declaration to the authorities in charge of civil aviation describing the activity for which he/she is using the drone. [72] This declaration must be renewed every two years if the activity stays the same, but any changes must be declared immediately. [73] Additionally, operations falling within an S-4 scenario require the government’s approval. [74]

In January of each year, every drone operator who falls within the “particular activities” regulations must send a report to the ministry in charge of civil aviation.[75] This report provides the number of hours of flight flown during the previous year, gives a summary of any problems encountered, and states the airworthiness of any drone weighing more than 25 kilograms. [76]

Any drone used for “particular activities” must have an identification plate affixed to it, showing the operator’s name and contact information. [77] Presumably, this is to ensure that the operator could be easily identified for purposes of establishing liability in case of an accident.

A drone’s operator is responsible for knowing, and for periodically evaluating, the level of competence of the pilots who fly it. [78]

D. Qualifications Requirements for Professional Drone Pilots

Pilots of drones for “particular activities” must have, or have had, a certificate of theoretical competence for flying a manned aircraft. [79] An exception is made for pilots of tethered aerostats, who are required only to be able to read aeronautical information. [80] Beyond this theoretical competence, drone pilots must take a practical training course determined by the drone operator as necessary to perform the flights required by the “particular activity” in question. [81]

Pilots of drones in S-4 scenarios are subject to additional requirements, which include having a manned aircraft pilot’s license (for either an airplane, a helicopter, or a glider) and at least one hundred hours of flight operating this aircraft as a pilot. [82] Furthermore, the pilot must have had at least twenty hours of practical experience flying the drone in the six months prior to the S-4 flight. [83]

The pilots of drones other than tethered aerostats weighing more than 25 kilograms must perform a demonstration flight before an agent of the ministry in charge of civil aviation before they are authorized to perform a “particular activity.” [84]

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Prepared by Nicolas Boring
Foreign Law Specialist
April 2016


[1] Arrêté du 17 décembre 2015 relatif à l’utilisation de l’espace aérien par les aéronefs qui circulent sans personne à bord [Order of December 17, 2015, Regarding the Use of Airspace by Unmanned Aircraft] (Airspace Order), https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000031679868&dateTexte=20160330 , archived at https://perma.cc/ZFA4-5L63.

[2] Arrêté du 17 décembre 2015 relatif à la conception des aéronefs civils qui circulent sans personne à bord, aux conditions de leur emploi et aux capacités requises des personnes qui les utilisent [Order of December 17, 2015, Regarding the Creation of Unmanned Civil Aircraft, the Conditions of Their Use, and the Required Aptitudes of the Persons That Use Them] (Creation and Use Order), https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORF TEXT000031679906&dateTexte=20160330 , archived at https://perma.cc/38PR-Y2DJ.

[3] Thierry Vallat, «Faux-bourdons» mais vraie règlementation: vers l’élaboration d’un véritable droit des drones [“ Drones” and True Regulations: Toward the Elaboration of a Real Law of Drones], Revue: La Lettre Juridique [Journal: Legal Weekly] No. 608, at 15 (Apr. 9, 2015), available on the Lexbase database, at http://www. presentation.lexbase.fr/sites/default/files/actualites/fichiers/24072961.pdf (by subscription), archived at https://perma.cc/3338-ZDQ3.

[4] Airspace Order art. 13; Creation and Use Order art. 12.

[5] Airspace Order art. 1; Creation and Use Order art. 1 (all translations by author).

[6] Airspace Order art. 1.

[7] Creation and Use Order art. 1.

[8] Id. art. 3.

[9] Id.

[10] Direction de la sécurité de l’Aviation civile [Directorate for Civil Aviation Security], Aéromodélisme: modèles réduits et drones de loisir: Guide [Model Aircraft Flying: Small-Scale Models and Hobby Drones: Guide] 8 (Dec. 22, 2015), available at http://www.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/ IMG/pdf/Guide_Aeromodlisme_v1-0.pdf , archived at https://perma.cc/C2T6-BQ5D.

[11] Airspace Order art. 5.

[12] Direction de la sécurité de l’Aviation civile, supra note 10, at 8.

[13] Id.

[14] Airspace Order art. 5.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. art. 4; Direction de la sécurité de l’Aviation civile, supra note 10, at 8–9.

[17] Airspace Order art. 4.

[18] Id. ; Direction de la sécurité de l’Aviation civile, supra note 10, at 16–18.

[19] Airspace Order art. 4; Direction de la sécurité de l’Aviation civile, supra note 10, at 16–18.

[20] Id.

[21] Airspace Order art. 3.

[22] Direction de la sécurité de l’Aviation civile, supra note 10, at 9–10.

[23] Airspace Order art. 3.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Direction de la sécurité de l’Aviation civile, supra note 10, at 9.

[28] Id.

[30] Creation and Use Order Annex I.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Creation and Use Order art. 3; Direction de la sécurité de l’Aviation civile, supra note 10, at 10.

[39] Direction de la sécurité de l’Aviation civile, supra note 10, at 10.

[40] Id.

[41] Id. ; Creation and Use Order art. 3.

[42] Creation and Use Order art. 3.

[43] Id. Annex II, ¶ 1.

[44] Id. ¶¶ 2–3.

[45] Id. ¶ 3.

[46] Id. ¶ 2.

[47] Id. Annex III.

[48] Id. art. 3.¶ 1.2.

[49] Id. ¶ 1.3.

[50] Id.

[51] Id. ¶ 1.4.1.

[52] Id. ¶ 1.4.2

[53] Id. ¶ 1.4.3.

[54] Id. ¶ 1.5.2.

[55] Id. ¶ 1.5.1.

[56] Id. ¶ 2.1.1.

[57] Id. ¶ 2.1.3.

[58] Id. ¶ 2.1.2.

[59] Id . ¶ 2.2.3.

[60] Id. ¶¶ 2.2.3–2.2.5.

[61] Id. ¶ 2.2.5.

[62] Id. ¶ 2.3.

[63] Id. ¶ 2.4.

[64] Id. ¶ 2.5.1.

[65] Id.

[66] Id.

[67] Id. ¶ 2.6.

[68] Id. ¶ 2.7.

[69] Id. ¶ 2.7.3.

[70] Id.

[72] Creation and Use Order Annex III, ¶ 3.3.1. As used in these regulations, the term “operator” appears to refer to the person or company in charge of the drone’s operation. The operator, in this context, is not necessarily the same person as the pilot. Rather, the term refers to the company that owns the drone and employs the pilot. It is possible (and probably not uncommon) for the operator and the pilot to be the same person if he/she is self-employed, but the concepts as used in these regulations are distinct.

[73] Id. ¶ 3.3.1–3.3.2.

[74] Id. ¶ 3.3.4.

[75] Id. ¶ 3.5.4.

[76] Id.

[77] Id. ¶ 1.7.

[78] Id. ¶ 3.5.2.

[79] Id. ¶ 4.1.1; Direction de la sécurité de l’Aviation civile, Aéronefs circulant sans personne à bord: activités particulières : Guide [Unmanned Aircraft: Particular Activities : Guide] 17 (Dec. 22, 2015), http://www.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/Guide_Activites_particulieres_v1-0.pdf , archived at https://perma.cc/V8CH-LHEL.

[80] Id. ¶ 4.1.1.

[81] Id. ¶ 4.2.1.

[82] Id. ¶ 4.2.2.

[83] Id. ¶ 4.2.3.

[84] Id. ¶ 4.3.

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Last Updated: 07/22/2016