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China Plans to Launch Airworthiness Certification System for Drones by End of 2019

BY Isabella Lee
27 February 2019

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) plans to launch a risk-based airworthiness management system for drones by the end of 2019.

CAAC UAV Airworthiness Certification

In many countries, including the United States and China, there are no airworthiness requirements in place for small unmanned aerial vehicles/drones. More common are airworthiness requirements for manned aircraft, like planes and helicopters. Manned aircraft are required to have certain safety features, structural design features, performance equipment, maintenance records, etc. in order to be deemed worthy of flight.

Based on the CAAC’s recently released document, Guidance on UAV Airworthiness Certification based on Operational Risks (herein referred to as Guidance), it appears some sectors of the drone industry are moving toward establishing airworthiness standards like that of manned aircraft. Let’s take a closer look at the document.

A Risk-Based Approach to Airworthiness Certification

With a degree of wisdom, the CAAC isn’t attempting to mimic the same system used for manned aircraft in their plans for unmanned aircraft. The traditional manned aircraft airworthiness system requires the supervision and approval of CAAC staff, placing large demands on the Administration’s human resources. Drones are produced in much larger quantities and at a faster pace than manned aircraft, and the CAAC staff cannot supervise drone manufacturers according to the same manned aircraft model. Therefore, the UAV airworthiness certification must inevitably be different from the manned airworthiness certification.

Neither is the CAAC attempting to establish a one-size-fits-all airworthiness certification for all drones. Instead, they are taking a much more congenial approach, aiming to develop a hierarchical system based on the level of operational risk.

According to Guidance, China’s UAV airworthiness certification will be guided by three principles:

1. Exploring a certification method by closely orchestrating hierarchical certifications with different levels of operational risks.

2. Exploring a certification process by extracting CAAC certification standards and regulations from industrial standards.

3. Exploring a certification mode with a more tolerant, open, and service-oriented mind by encouraging UAV companies to jointly participate in airworthiness management through an integrated information system.

The CAAC has enlisted five Chinese UAV companies to test different UAV programs that explore airworthiness standards and certification methods. Specific standards and certification methods are being investigated for UAVs transporting cargo, inspecting powerlines, and carrying passengers.

Under the new system, the manufacturer will assume the responsibility of proving the airworthiness of the UAV.  The CAAC’s role will be to guide the manufacturers to establish and improve the airworthiness system of the UAV design and production enterprises. Once the manufacturer has established a qualified airworthiness system and its UAV products have met airworthiness standards, CAAC will issue them an airworthiness certificate.

To keep with the tight deadline of finalizing this system by 2019, CAAC plans to strengthen organization and coordination, set up full-time institutions, strengthen financial support, and expand international cooperation.

Does the Drone Industry Need Airworthiness Standards?

In the near future, it is expected by CAAC that the UAV industry will eventually be on a par with the general aviation industry, or even replace some applications of current general aviation aircraft in certain fields.

The need to develop airworthiness standards grows as the applicable uses for drones grow. Going beyond aerial photography, the various drone applications have expanded greatly, with new uses in logistics and cargo transportation, agricultural and forestry plant protection, pipeline inspection, remote sensing, and other fields. The purpose of airworthiness certification will be to ensure that the growing number of civil drones flying in the airspace meet the minimum acceptable level of safety for the public.

China’s Leading Manufacturing Role in the Drone Industry

According to the statistics from the CAAC’s drone registration system, as of January 24, 2019, about 295,000 drones have been registered with CAAC. The CAAC estimates that there are about 268,000 drone owners, 3,720 drone models, and 1,239 manufacturers and agents.

China’s drone manufacturing industry is developing rapidly and is of concern to the world. They headquarter the drone industry’s most popular drone manufacturer, DJI, in addition to about 1,200 other Chinese drone manufacturers. The country’s movement toward establishing airworthiness standards will have a strong impact in all other countries where drones are flown.

Share your thoughts on the CAAC’s plans to establish a risk-based airworthiness certification system for drones in this thread on our community forum. For information on China’s existing drone regulations, visit our Drone Laws in China guide.

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