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Adapting the SORA methodology: An overview of SORA 2.5 with Joerg Dittrich, Leader of the JARUS WG-SRM

Eszter Kovacs, Co-Founder and CEO of DroneTalks, had the chance to sit down with Joerg Dittrich, the current leader of the JARUS WG-SRM (working group for safety and risk management), who is currently playing a major role in the SORA 2.5 updates. 

SORA stands for Specific Operations Risk Assessment and is a living document used by aviation authorities around the world to help create a standard with which they can judge the risk of drone operations.

JARUS stands for the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems and is a group of aviation experts who come together to create recommendations and guidelines that can be adopted by aviation authorities globally for their uncrewed aviation systems standards. Some countries may adopt the SORA standards from JARUS as they are, but others will adapt them slightly to better fit the needs of their market. 

JARUS is composed of around 66 member authorities, aviation authorities and international organisations. These are separated into four distinct working groups that each handle a specific aspect of aviation: safety and risk management; airworthiness; operation, organisation and personnel; and automation concept of operation. Within these four working groups, there are approximately 140 members.

What is SORA 2.0, and how is it different from SORA 2.5?

JARUS members meet occasionally to discuss SORA and the needed updates, which is why this document is considered a living document. SORA 2.0 was the first implemented version of this living document of recommendations, which will be completely revamped shortly. 

The next upcoming meetings are the two plenary meetings in Rome and will involve all four working groups strategising in parallel to discuss the SORA 2.5 updates, which will completely revamp the current safety standards of the current SORA 2.0 recommendations.

For context, Joerg told us that SORA 2.0 was the first usable version of SORA by various aviation authorities, which was released in 2019. The most prominent adopter was the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which has since integrated SORA 2.0 into its regulatory framework. 

For drone organisations, this means they have had to go through a SORA-specific approval process before achieving airborne operations in the European Union if their operation falls under the specific category. There are, however, some exceptions to this, but for conciseness, we’ll assume that the basics can be summarised to this point. 

SORA 2.5 aims to make these safety standards more accurate to the feedback JARUS has received since the 2019 publication of SORA 2.0.

Which countries have currently adopted the SORA methodology?

Current countries that are using SORA as a framework for their drone operation approval processes (either at high fidelity with few adaptations or at low fidelity with major adaptations) include Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the entire European Union. There are also countries that are in the process of adopting the SORA methodology, like Brazil, Israel and South Africa. 

Each country is using the SORA methodology to enable a vast number of drone operations, which means that the first implementation of SORA 2.0 within regulatory frameworks has been tested internationally; however, that’s not to say that there haven’t been problems with this mass adoption. 

The question JARUS members are now asking themselves on a regular basis (not just during the updating process) is how do these recommendations and guidelines function in real life? 

Joerg told us that the most interesting thing he’s seen is that the drone applicants, operators and authorities all interpret these requirements slightly differently. While this might not, at first, seem like a problem, it actually can lead to a “zoo of evolving different interpretations of how to apply SORA correctly.” Some of these differing interpretations have shown that parts of the SORA need to be more precisely worded to avoid potential confusion, which could be devastatingly costly both in terms of time and monetary value for private organisations. 

Using the SORA methodology in practice

While there are updates needed, the first edition of the SORA works well in practice, so the upcoming changes for SORA 2.5 have been discussed for the last two years, incorporating a number of lessons learned from real-world implementations. 

The first lesson that JARUS learned over the course of SORA 2.0 is that the next version of the methodology needs to increase usability. Joerg explained to us that JARUS members will begin by clarifying the wording to describe what’s expected of users of the system. They also plan to produce additional guidance material for situations like compiling a risk case. 

In essence, the SORA says that drone operators need to describe their operation and then do a risk assessment to essentially check and see if they have everything. But, this can look a variety of different ways, which can cause misunderstandings. 

These updates will lead an organisation through the necessary points and provide a better guide, which will be in the new annexe A, but Joerg says that there is no requirement to use this new annexe since it should only provide added value to the process, and JARUS only provides recommendations. This is good news for drone operators with SORA 2.0 approval since they can continue using their current documentation without changing it.

Still, he does recommend that organisations who haven’t yet compiled their SORA documentation use the updated guidelines since some nations might begin to implement the SORA methodology for their drone operational approvals using SORA 2.5 as this methodology grows in popularity, making it easier for organisations to get international approval through one harmonised process.

How does SORA empower the drone industry?

While some organisations see the changes in the SORA approval process as a costly procedure that negatively impacts their operational and strategic goals, Joerg has another opinion. 

He explained that there are many different ways organisations can mitigate risk and improve safety measures, and it would take ages to list each alternative risk mitigation strategy. What the SORA methodology does is create standardised processes of how to mitigate risks along with classes of various operations. This can then be used by the competent authorities to more quickly assess the risk of a specific operation instead of needing to reevaluate each individual mitigation, which would slow things down tremendously and potentially prevent smaller players from entering the industry. 

For instance, the SORA has different SAIL levels, which stand for safety assurance and integrity levels. For each SAIL level, there are a number of different operations that are possible since different operations have the potential to have similar levels of risk, which can be calculated based on different factors like the size of the drone, where the drone is flying or the types of critical infrastructure.

This is also important for manufacturers who are selling aircraft designed for SAIL III operations since these can be recognised as SORA SAIL III compliant across multiple countries, so an aircraft with a European SAIL III approval would be able to be recognised in Canada, assuming they also recognise that they accept the same standards as EASA.

What comes next for JARUS?

During the interview, Joerg explained that JARUS will continue striving to create a SORA methodology that contributes to the global harmonisation of safety standards for uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS). This will enable a more flexible use of international airspaces for drone organisations in the long term. 

SORA 2.5 had an unusually long consultation period lasting three months due to the size of the package. Over that time, JARUS collected close to 1,500 comments from aviation authorities, companies, drone manufacturers and other stakeholders worldwide. The JARUS team will now review all of these comments and do their best to resolve them, which will likely take some time to complete. 

Joerg explained that they resolve comments by addressing first if the comment is valid, identifying the issue and then fixing it. If all of the comments made are valid and require the documentation to be updated, the publication date might be further out than anticipated.

Once the document has had all of the comments resolved, JARUS will have a vote on the new package before it is published directly on their website. It is up to the individual aviation authorities and regulators to decide whether to adopt SORA 2.5 as is or add country-specific changes.

Joerg ended the interview by telling us that SORA 2.5 isn’t the end. As a living document, there is no doubt that SORA 3.0 will be released in the future and continue to improve on the results of SORA 2.5.

About Joerg Dittrich
Joerg Dittrich currently serves as the Leader of the JARUS Working Group for Safety and Risk Management (WG-SRM). JARUS, or the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems, is an organisation that works part-time to provide recommendations on safety and risk regulations for RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) of all classes and sizes. WG-SRM's most notable success is the Specific Operation Risk Assessment (SORA), a global standard for risk analysis that supports drone operations in specific categories.

In addition to his work with JARUS, Dittrich has been with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) for over 20 years. Currently, he holds the position of Senior Expert in Drone Regulations, acting as a scientific advisor to international and national workgroups and task forces focused on drone rulemaking and developing compliance methods for drone regulations. Previously, he has held positions such as Head of the Department of Unmanned Aircraft and Research Scientist.

Dittrich's experience also includes a stint at the Georgia Institute of Technology as a Graduate Research Assistant, where he worked on avionics integration and navigation system implementation for an unmanned helicopter.

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