In recent years civilian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology has developed rapidly and the use of UAVs has become increasingly widespread. While no comprehensive laws or strictly legally binding administrative regulations regarding such UAVs exist in China, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CACC) and other administrative bodies and local authorities are actively reviewing ways to cope with the challenges that their development poses to the traditional civil aviation regulatory system. Various normative documents and an administrative regulation proposal have been drafted and promulgated regarding the flying of drones in Chinese airspace. This article is a brief introduction to the registration, certification and licensing requirements relating to civil unmanned aircraft in China.
According to the Provisions on Administration of the Real-Name Registration of Civil Unmanned Aircrafts, since 1 June 2017 civil unmanned aircraft within Chinese territory whose maximum take-off weight is equal to or more than 250g must be registered via the unmanned aircraft real-name registration system.
Owners or title holders of such unmanned aircraft – including individuals, legal entities, enterprises, public institutions, government agencies and other organisations – must register and update both their personal information and information about their unmanned aircraft through this system. Such information includes the owner or title holder’s name, personal ID card or passport number, mobile phone number and email and the model and serial number of their drone.
Further, manufacturers of civil unmanned aircraft must enter their product and purchaser information in the system.
All civil aircraft within Chinese territory must obtain a CAAC airworthiness certificate. The Airworthiness Certification Procedures for Civil Aircrafts and Related Products and Certification Regulations of Civil Aviation Products and Accessories specifically regulate airworthiness certificates, airworthiness examinations and corresponding procedures applicable to civil aircraft.
Airworthiness is one of the factors used in deciding whether unmanned aircraft can fly in civil airspace to avoid damage to people and property on the ground. The 20 January 2020 CAAC Systematic Airworthiness Standard of High-Risk Cargo Fixed Wing Unmanned Aircrafts regulates the airworthiness standard of high-risk cargo fixed-wing aircraft. With respect to other civil unmanned aircraft, applicants are entitled to propose airworthiness standards, which the CAAC may accept as official standards at its discretion.
For airworthiness certification procedures, the Risk Assessment Guidance on Civil Unmanned Aircrafts Airworthiness Certification Projects (Trial) and the Airworthiness Certification Management Procedures for Civil Unmanned Aircrafts were effective from 1 June 2020 to 1 June 2021.
Unmanned aircraft operator licences
According to Measures for the Administration of the Commercial Flight Activities of Civil Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Interim) (‘the measures’), within Chinese territory (not including Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan), unmanned civil aircraft with a maximum empty weight that is equal to or exceeds 250g which are used for commercial operations and commercial training activities other than air transportation (eg, aerial dusting (spraying), aerial photography and aerial performances) must obtain an operation permit issued by the CAAC regional administration.
According to the measures, applicants for unmanned aircraft operator licences must:
- be an enterprise with legal person status whose legal representative is a Chinese citizen;
- have at least one unmanned aircraft registered in the unmanned aircraft real-name registration system;
- have their training ability recognised by the competent department of the industry or an institution authorised thereby (this applies only to training activities); and
- purchase third-party ground liability insurance for unmanned civil aircraft.
Applicants must apply for unmanned aircraft operator licences online through the Civil Unmanned Aircraft System Operator’s Certificate Management System. Applicants must submit the following information online and ensure that the content of the application is true, legitimate and valid:
- basic information about the enterprise;
- the registration numbers of their unmanned civil aircraft;
- the recognition number of the relevant unmanned civil aircraft training institution (this applies only to training activities);
- evidence of third-party ground liability insurance for unmanned civil aircraft; and
- the activities that the enterprise plans to carry out.
The CAAC regional administration will determine whether to grant a licence within 20 days of the date on which an applicant submits the application materials online. If the certificate is granted, the applicant can obtain an electronic licence online. If it is not, the applicant can check the reasons for the refusal online.
Restrictions on foreign unmanned aircraft and foreign unmanned aircraft pilots
Only corporate entities whose legal representatives are Chinese citizens are eligible to obtain the operator’s certificate required for the use of unmanned civil aircraft for commercial activities within Chinese territory (not including Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan) with unmanned civil aircraft.
For foreign unmanned aircraft and foreign unmanned aircraft pilots, no specific laws and regulations apply. However, the General Rules of Flight and Regulations of General Aviation Flight Mission Approval and Management impose some restrictions on flights conducted by foreign civil aircraft or domestic civil aircraft piloted by foreign pilots alone.
Foreign aircraft which fly into or out of Chinese territorial airspace and foreign aircraft which fly or staying within Chinese territory must obtain approval according to the relevant laws and regulations.
Further, foreign civil aircraft or domestic civil aircraft piloted by foreign pilots alone are subject to the following restrictions:
- Such aircraft may not undertake general aviation flights relating to significant professional fields (eg, aerial photography, remote sensing and mineral resource exploration) within Chinese territory.
- The CAAC will consult the Headquarter of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army to review whether such aircraft can use airports, airspace and air routes that are not open to the public for general aviation flights.
- Before such aircraft perform other general aviation flight missions, a flight application that explains the nature of the mission must be submitted pursuant to the national flight control regulations.
The Interim Ordinances on Unmanned Aircraft Flight Management (draft for comments) clarifies that:
within the territory of PRC, foreign unmanned aircrafts or domestic unmanned aircrafts piloted by foreigners alone are prohibited from undertaking flight activities such as measurement and survey, and filming sensitive areas.
Pilot project regarding civil air transport via unmanned aircraft
Civil air transport via unmanned aircraft is still in its early stages in China and is carried out according to the CAAC’s approval of various pilot projects regarding such transport.
In 2017 the CAAC issued a notice that it approves the pilot project of air express via unmanned aircraft in Nankang District, Gan Zhou. Therefore, air express via unmanned aircraft has been put into service.
On 22 July 2019 the CAAC issued another notice on the expansion of the pilot project to some areas in the jurisdiction of the Southwest Bureau of the CAAC, which includes the areas of Sichuan and Yunnan. The period of the expanded pilot project is two years from the date on which the notice was printed and issued.
On 26 February 2021 the CAAC announced a further expansion of the pilot project of air express via unmanned aircraft in its meeting on general aviation.
Last year, the General Office of the State Council officially issued the State Council Legislative Work Plan for 2020 (Guo Ban Fa  18), which explicitly includes the formulation of provisional regulations on the operation of unmanned aircraft in the State Council Legislative Work Plan for 2020. The pace of legislation is accelerating. Both amateur and professional drone users should treat all of the aforementioned regulations and normative documents with caution to avoid legal sanctions and administrative penalties.