By JOSEPH CANTU, with PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – On 13-14 June, practitioners and policymakers gathered at the “Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems” (RPAS) Conference here to discuss the state-of-play for drone legislation and industry development across the European Union (EU).
Among the first speakers – on the subject of legislation – were Koen de Vos and Antonio Marchetto. De Vos, drone policy officer at European Commission’s Directorate General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE), explained the challenges of creating the beginnings of a EU-wide drone regulatory framework by 2019, while Marchetto, European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) RPAS expert, focused on his organisation’s recent “Notice of Proposed Amendment” (NPA) to the EU’s air safety regulation.
By 2020, De Vos explained, the EU drone market will be worth between EUR 200 million and several billion euros, with customers ranging across oil and gas exploration, precision farming, security, the media, and critical infrastructure inspection, to name but the most obvious.
But the size of the market will depend, in part, upon the EU’s ability to regulate it, while the technical challenges include: simultaneous and fully automated piloting and air traffic control; a denser air traffic environment; single operators controlling several drones; the safety and privacy concerns of citizens; and the ‘future-proofing’ of legislation against fast developing technology.
“Don’t look at drones and aviation only” for trying to predict future trends, warned de Vos. “Look at automation, and other robotic developments.”
He expects the EU’s next Estonian presidency, which starts on 1 July, to preside over adoption of a comprehensive regulatory framework by the end of 2017. Once adopted, it will come into effect in 2019.
The prospective rules include extending the legislation’s mandate to cover all drone weights, not just those over 150 kilos, and keeping rules proportionate to the risks of drone use. The new framework will also implement an ‘operation-centric’ approach that weighs risks and rules according to the circumstances of a particular operation, as opposed to a manned, ‘aircraft-centric’ approach in which risks and rules apply across operations.
“How can we unlock the drone service market through this framework?” he asked. “We want to start with this emerging market by 2019. How full will the glass be? Will there be some drops, or will it be nearly full?”
To help fill the glass of the drone sector’s economic potential, de Vos described several grant-based “financial pipelines” for drone research and development.
EUR nine million will allocated for exploratory research to “discover areas which can be served with existing technologies”. Another EUR 30 million will be allocated for industrial research and development.
De Vos justified the larger sum by comparing drone potential to that of the iPhone. He concluded that after the new regulations were passed, DG MOVE would concentrate on creating the necessary institutions to enforce regulations while also promoting continued development of drone technology. “The year 2019 will be a big challenge,” he said. “Will we be able to deliver? Nobody knows. But we must trust the process.”
In the following presentation, Marchetto dived into drone regulation details, with the goal that “rules should be proportionate to the risk and strive to allow continuation of business as usual”. While drones under 250g require no electronic identification (EI) or geo-fencing capabilities or training for their pilots, all drones above that weight will require, at a minimum, online training and capabilities for EI and installed geo-fencing software, depending where they are used, and for what purpose.
For example, drones under 900g with a camera whose resolution is higher than 5 megapixels will require EI. Additionally, while rotorcraft drones up to 4 kg can be flown within 20 meters of uninvolved people (but not over them), drones weighing up to 25kg must be flown much farther away – “in an area where it is reasonably expected that no uninvolved person will be present”, he said.
For those devices flown near people, a written test is required for operators and the drones require both geo-fencing capabilities and EI. For those flown far away, only an online test is required, with EI and geo-fencing only necessary as depending on the region. Both categories require lost-link management and selectable height limits to ensure that drones don’t fly above their 120-meter limits. (The exception would be circumstances where they need to fly over obstacles, in which case they may fly up to 50 meters above the obstacle.)
Marchetto went on to add that standard operations will be those which have received a specific operation risk assessment. A SORA takes into account the operation’s land risks, air risks, and general lethality to determine the operation’s “SAIL”, or specific assurance and integrity level, which ranges from 1 to 6. Marchetto explained that this approach makes sense, saying “the nature of the risk inherent to the operation must be taken into account for the regulation”.
The grants for industrial and exploratory research – though miniscule in the greater scheme of things – could be valuable, as small companies developing new technology will be hungry for capital. The Commission has already experimented with “quick and dirty” grant-distribution rules for other small-grant purposes. This should certainly be applied – and expanded – to drones if it wants to stimulate a developmental gold rush in the sector.