This article is part of our special report Farnborough International Airshow 2016.
Within weeks, the European Commission is expected to conclude the first EU rules for all types of unmanned aircraft, in which the ‘geofencing’ of airports and city centres will come as a top priority.
For some, drones represent a promising technology to expand our capabilities in the field of parcel delivery, humanitarian assistance or infrastructure maintenance. But critics point out that these aircraft also raise some concerns in terms of safety and privacy.
After an intense preparatory work of more than a year to address the patchy legislative approach across Europe, the EU will come up in the next few weeks with a proposal to centralise the powers to regulate all types of drones.
The proposal could be announced even before the summer break, EU sources told EURACTIV.com.
Not only the big ones
To date, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the EU’s regulatory body in this field, only regulates unmanned aircraft above 150 kg.
In parallel, the executive together with EASA, is preparing a new set of measures to address some of the flaws observed in the growing penetration of these objects.
Officials explained that these measures will require the identification of the vehicles and the register of users as a way to ensure compliance with the new rules and to enable their enforcement.
The new implementing measures will also call for limitation zones (or geo-fencing) to avoid the crash of drones against passenger jets or city goers
The criteria to determine the level of identification and geo-fencing will be based on EASA’s risk-based approach set up last December by EASA in the technical preparatory work.
Member states would be responsible to define the “no fly zones” to be protected.
In order to avoid medium and large drones access these areas, which would include airports and cities, satellite geo-location will allow for automatic limitation of the airspace.
Larger drones should also count with “detect and avoid” system to avoid collision with other aircraft or objects.
Smaller drones, mostly used by consumers, must include operational restrictions to limit safety hazards, for example, to limit flying above 150 metres.
Authorities are becoming increasingly concerned about the access of drones to he airspace of airports. Numerous cases have been reported of small unmanned aircraft crashing against commercial flights.
Last April, a British Airways plane was hit by a drone when it was landing at Heathrow Airport. Although the object struck the front pf the plane, it left no damage.
In regards to the identification requirements, a drone with a high-risk profile, would need to fulfil aviation identification rules (including markings). Meanwhile, only an electronic chip would be required for smaller vehicles.
The Commission already set the parameters of the new regulation last December, when it proposed the revision of EASA regulation to reinforce the agency’s competences.
In this proposal, the Commission noted that the current division of competence on drones between EU and the Member states based on the 150 Kg threshold “is generally deemed obsolete”.
“The rules for unmanned aircraft should evolve towards an operation centric approach, where the risk of a particular operation is made dependent on a range of factors,” the text said.
Based on a public consultation, the executive also pointed out that in order to improve privacy related aspects to the use of unmanned aircraft, there is no need for new rules, but a better application of the existing ones, “with a closer collaboration between national aviation authorities and national data protection authorities”.
The Commission expects the national governments could reach a political agreement on its call for an EU-wide framework for drones by the end of this year.
The vote in the European Parliament’s Transport Committee could take place in September.
Once the regulation with the new EASA competences is approved, the Commission will announce with no delay the implementing rules to regulate aspects such as the registration and the geo-fencing.
The European Commission expects that, within 20 years, the European drone sector could directly employ more than 100 000 people and have an economic impact exceeding €10 billion per year, mainly in services.
The executive developed a strategy to support the progressive development of the unmanned aircraft market in Europe, while also addressing concerns about safety, security, privacy, liability and/or public acceptance.
This strategy has been endorsed by the aviation community in the Riga Declaration and was made public after the conference organised on 5-6 March 2015, during the Latvian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
The strategy focuses on Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), a sub-set of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), which excludes fully autonomous systems. It aims to ensure:
- the safe and secure integration of RPAS into the European aviation system, from 2016 onwards, through the development of:
- a common safety regulatory framework, proportionate to risks for drones of all classes. This is to enable the creation of a single European market for civil drones applications
- the necessary enabling technologies ('sense and avoid', 'comment and control communication link' etc.) within the 'SESAR' joint undertaking, in close coordination with other initiatives
- measures to ensure the protection of citizens (privacy, insurance, etc.)
- measures to support market development and European industries.