By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – Around 10,000 international flights a day pass through global skies, but the traffic high above our heads may soon be obscured by a dense swarm of buzzing drones. While manned aircraft numbers grow by 750 a year, the number of drones — formally known as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) — mushrooms by 150,000 a year, with over four million already in the sky.
In this increasingly clouded airspace, close-calls and even collisions between manned and unmanned craft may be inevitable. In 2015, airline pilots reported 14 instances of drone interference as their planes approached airports. In 2016, the number rose to 64.
The challenges of managing drones was in full evidence during a Eurocontrol-sponsored workshop here in early April that brought together air traffic operators, experts and policymakers. The key question was how and when to incorporate commercial drones into traditional air traffic management (ATM) systems, and how to achieve a uniform approach across Europe to emerging unmanned aerial vehicle traffic Management (UTM) systems. Another important dilemma is how to define and police ‘U-Space’, or the space below 500 feet where most unmanned drones fly.
Eurocontrol Director General Frank Brenner led off the workshop, noting that while drone use is exploding, the aviation industry usually takes 5-7 years to integrate new technologies. With speedy regulation, “this new industry can grow to its full potential while ensuring… that safety is not compromised,” he said.
For its part, the European Commission is moving aggressively to develop EU-wide standards for drones. Vicente de Frutos, Directorate-Generate for Mobility and Transport, said the Commission will have a plan to organise the U-Space within six months to ensure safety and privacy for users and pedestrians on the ground.
But is Europe’s ATC sector keeping up with the pace? Not according to Andrew Sage, account director at the UK’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS).
“Armies of air traffic controllers are not fit for this market,” Sage told the gaterhing. Arguing that existing ATMs cannot cover drone use outside of controlled airspace, he proposed a range of measures for developing safe, drone-specific UTMs, including drone registration at the point of sale and “tiers” of airspace guided by the national publication of ‘no-fly zones’. “We have enough users out there [so] we need to be delivering these services now,” he said.
Marc Kegelaers, board member for the Global Unmanned Traffic Management Association (GUTMA), said an important objective now is to define the terms of the debate.
“The goal is to create definitions,” he said. “So everyone knows what we’re talking about, when we talk about UTMs.” The need is urgent, he added, because commercial drone operators — who stand to save millions of euros in costs from drone use — often find their flight paths blocked by recreational users.
Drones are programmed to avoid each other, but not always efficiently, said Neil Kidd, chief technology officer at Altitude Angel, a drone services operator. “If you have 10 drones in an area the size of a football pitch [and] if you just have sense-and-avoid [on-board technology], the chance of them reaching their destination and not just bouncing off each other is pretty low.”
When full-fledge UTMs come online, they will need to square the circle between safety and commercial potential, all the while avoiding conflict with traditional ATMs, he said. “UTM is all about safe integration. We have to get this right.”
The Commission’s efforts to regulate drone space across Europe may help in this regard, but a Dutch military official was sceptical, given the many potential conflicts between unmanned and manned vehicles. For example, the maximum altitude of 400 feet for ‘open’ category drones is meant to provide a buffer of 100 feet between drone uses in that zone and the 500-foot minimum altitude for general aviation. But the minimum altitude for helicopters in many countries is only 150 feet.
Even with minimal harmonising standards laid down by EU laws for the sector, there could still be variance across the member states.
“They have this [developing] European legislation that calls for 400 feet [as the flight ceiling for most drones], but on a national level, you can then lower that,” the Dutch official told SECURITY EUROPE. “So you can make a national law more strict than a European law. That’s where it becomes complicated – unless you have automated systems.”
Let’s assume the best: that a ‘U-Space’ is defined, and that conflicts between existing ATMs and UTMs are resolved. Will an operator know where it is safe to fly, and under what conditions? Would local regulations and physical geo-fencing restrictions be installed automatically to a drone, or would the operator be compelled to seek them out?
If the burden of compliance is placed entirely upon the drone operator, then most operators will probably continue what they’re doing now: ignoring them altogether, while flying high.