By JONATHAN DOWDALL
BRUSSELS – As the US and Europe compete to be the first to develop a comprehensive policy to enable unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to move in controlled airspace, experts close to these issues argue that Europe has the potential to take the lead. They claim that on-going consultations with the European Commission and the European Air Safety Agency (EASA) could produce a viable aerial insertion policy for drones by around 2015, thus matching Washington’s deadline to do the same.
Also known as “remotely piloted air systems” (RPAS), drones are currently prohibited from flying out of line-of-sight or above certain altitudes without special air-traffic control permission. Thus, the exploitation of RPAC for civil security purposes is currently constrained, despite strong end-user and industry interest.
The first signs of political will towards a governing set of rules for aerial insertion appeared simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic earlier this year. On one side, the US Congress appointed a working group under the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), whilst on the other is the Commission’s new RPAS strategy (see related story in this issue). Each side wants to influence the so-called “air insertion” goal because the latter will likely serve as the reference point for the international community.
The US is manoeuvring to have the lead. In June 2012 the US-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) released its new “code of conduct” document, offering recommendations for the sector in areas such as privacy and safety. With some of the world’s largest drone manufacturers as members, including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, AUVSI’s is a strong player to speak for the entire sector.
However, a source close to the European air insertion regulatory process told SECURITY EUROPE that this image is misleading. “This is a typical example of a US group telling the world how to behave — but it takes more than a well written two-pager to govern global UAS policy”, the industry expert explained. “AUVSI is not proving itself worthy of the ‘I’ in its name”, the source added.
The crux of the issue is the width of stakeholder inclusion. “The US FAA is coming up with some fantastic ideas — but it cannot create a global mandate”, the source said. This is where the ongoing consultations between the European Commission, the European Air Safety Agency (EASA) and Eurocontrol kick in.
“Beyond representing the 27 EU countries and others, these pan-European organizations represent a broader international basis. “The European process is proving to be more inclusive, and involves more stakeholders. We even have Russia and China at the table through the EU channels”, the source explained.
Tony Henley, a UK-based independent aerospace consultant, agreed with this assessment. Although warning that the FAA is proving itself to be more flexible in granting test-flight licenses for UAS operators — leading to increased drone flight hours in the US last year — the overall picture is that Europe has a wider base of national experiences to draw upon.
For instance, the UK Civil Aviation Authority is an air insertion pioneer, having so far granted some 200 full commercial operator licenses to run small, short range, low-altitude UAS in its airspace. “In fact, the FAA small/light UAS code is expected to be circulated for stakeholder comment later this year, whereas the UK [small drone policy] is in its third or fourth edition already”, Henley explained. Indeed, comparable developments in Switzerland, Sweden and Italy back up his point.
Looking ahead, a European industry-led road map for air insertion should be presented at a conference here 4 November. Hosted by EASA and the European association of drone manufacturers, UVS International, the event will unveil a set of industry-approved recommendations for the Commission’s expert UAS panel.
Moreover, for all the optimism, Europe still faces some existential choices on how to manage its UAS industry. Size and scale are one big issue. As Henley noted, the current regulatory distinction between drones over 150 kg, which fall within EASA’s mandate, versus those of less than 150 kg and thus outside it is stifling the sector. “The 150 kg boundary has no justification from an engineering or safety perspective, and is not recognized anywhere else in the world”, he said. Many experts believe EASA could soon be granted a new mandate to include airframes below 150 kg — but this will take time. Until then, the distinction could pointless segregate the sector in the interim.
Another factor is financial. With budgets squeezed across Europe, the civil resources to test-fly UAS, let alone purchase and operate them afterwards, are extremely curtailed.
Here, UVS International is trying to develop a solution. Under a working group dubbed the “Mutualisation of Assets”, it aims tap into European military UAS operators — the only group with the assets and money to fly drones in large numbers and the only ones with experience flying UAS in civilian airspace.