The political shockwaves triggered by the Paris attacks have hit the growing market for drones, with EU policymakers taking a tougher stance on how to regulate the unmanned aircraft.
Drones have become a very popular aviation tool, not only in military operations in Afghanistan, Yemen or Iraq, but also as service providers, and carriers of humanitarian aid to remote areas in developing countries.
In order to support the development of the unmanned aerial vehicles sector, the European Commission intends to put forward legislative proposals to remove legal uncertainties that hamper its development in Europe, in order to ensure that the safety, security and privacy of European citizens is ensured.
This regulatory push will be part of the aviation package to be adopted by the College of Commissioners on Wednesday (2 December), and announced next Monday (7 December).
The whole strategy boils down to a single dilemma: whether to treat drones as an enabler or as a public threat, an EU official said.
In this context, the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November, when 130 people died, have severely affected the debate.
“It is very clear that the centrifugal forces are more restrictive, which is bad news for those having a more liberal position,” the official added on condition of anonymity.
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) concluded a public consultation on 24 October on a set of 33 draft proposals. The agency will send the final version to the executive in the coming days.
EASA proposes a proportional and operation?centric approach. In other words, it focuses more on ‘how’ and under ‘what conditions’ the drone is used, rather than only the characteristics of the drone, including the weight.
Despite the fact that privacy and data protection are two of the main concerns when it comes to the development of drones, the EASA has not directly addressed these two issues, as they fall outside its competences.
The proposal brings under the safety regulations both commercial and non?commercial activities, and introduces three categories of operations, based on the risk drones pose to third parties: open category (low?risk), specific category (medium?risk) and certified category (high?risk).
Need to register?
EU regulators are still undecided whether the use of drones requires a licence, and if the aircraft need to be registered.
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration recently said that drones weighting more than 250 grammes should be registered online with the owner’s name and address.
An EASA spokesperson declined to comment before the proposal for the European Commission is published.
Meanwhile, a Commission spokesperson said that a register could be a “discipline element” to address certain concerns, in particular the security aspects.
However, the official pointed out that drones have an “important” potential, including in the field of the collaborative economy, as they represent new ways for the transportation of goods. Therefore, rules and bureaucracy should be put in place in such a way that their development is not killed.
Currently, the European Aviation Safety Agency is the competent authority for drones above 150 kg. They are regulated in a similar manner to other aircraft. Member States are responsible to regulate the unmanned aerial vehicles below this threshold, but only a limited number of capitals have adopted specific rules for this sector.
EASA recalls that, as the use of drones has significantly grown in recent years, Member States had to react quickly, potentially leading to a fragmented market. In addition, drone weight is not the only criterion. Therefore, the agency underlines the need of common European safety rules for drones.
The European Parliament agrees with this position. In a resolution approved last October, the MEPs called for a common framework for how the Commission, EU Member states and other stakeholders involved should act, without being “too prescriptive” the rapporteur Jacqueline Foster (ECR, UK) said.
Europe is a leader in civil drone activities as there are 2,500 European operators, compared to 2,342 in the rest of the world.
According to some estimates, the drone sector could be worth 10% of the aviation market as a whole (15 billion euros).
- 7 November: the European Commission presents its aviation package.
- Mid-December: EASA presents its formal proposal for the Commission for the use of drones