By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – Once the preserve of aviation hobbyists, drones now hold big promise for many key industries. Better and smaller cameras and electronics, internet and satellite communication, and lighter and cheaper materials have all made drones suitable for tasks as varied as monitoring agricultural yields, inspecting off-shore oil platforms in the high north, or helping police secure porous land and maritime borders.
By 2035, the total industry – including leisure and toy drones, commercial or government drones, and military drones – will generate more that EUR 10 billion a year, creating over 100,000 jobs. Most of that growth will come in the commercial and government sector, as analysts see the leisure and toy sector approaching maturity.
According to manufacturers, trainers, and operators, however, the Commission must move more quickly in developing EU-wide standards for training, licensing, and operating in order to control the ongoing explosion of unregulated European drone use.
That common view emerged during the 4th annual conference on ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems/Civil Operations’, held here on 6-7 December to discuss the need for Europe-wide regulation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, and their integration or “air insertion” into traditional air traffic management.
The potential for accidents is already massive, and growing. In one of many incidents, on 14 November, pilots landing a commercial aircraft with 54 passengers in Toronto swerved to avoid an object that officials believe to have been a drone. The plane landed safely, although two cabin crew were injured.
Mike Lissone, RPAS ATM integration programme manager at Eurocontrol, gave another harrowing example of drone growth. A drone manufacturer announced that a software update for a popular model would be downloadable via GPS on a specific date. Officials in the controlled traffic region (CTR) near Hamburg Airport examined how many flying drones downloaded the new software. CTRs are legally no-go areas for drones, yet a thousand unlicensed drones grabbed the update anyway, many in the immediate vicinity of the airport. “And that was in 2014,” Lissone said.
“You need to understand that you’re now in the middle of an industry revolution,” Lissone continued. Drone flights will continue, whether or not regulators do anything about it. “If we don’t have a vision about what to do about [this growth], the only thing we’re doing is allowing them to fly.” The solution, he said, is pan-European standards and harmonised training, licensing, and operating requirements. But “there is no vision at the moment… We have no clue where this is going, and no one is daring to lay out the stakes.”
Matthjis van Miltenberg, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who sits on the latter’s Regional Development Committee, offered a timeline for potential legislation, noting that negotiations will probably start in early 2017 with the European Council. “If we have an efficient [Maltese] Presidency, we might conclude the legislative process before the summer,” before adding that the Estonian Presidency would likely take up the matter in the second half of 2017. “We’re dependent on the Council,” he said.
Conference participants lauded France’s drone regulation as a potential model for other European countries.
In reaction to a number of unidentified drone flights over the country’s nuclear reactors in 2014, the French government moved aggressively to develop an overall strategy for drone training, licensing, and operation. A “civil drones council” was established for the industry which, among other initiatives, mapped out areas in France for drone testing and developed technical standards for drone identification and positioning. The biggest lesson learned was that a “complete disconnect” separates what the industry knows about drones, and what governments know “at every level of government”, Carine Donzel-Figier, deputy head of aeronautics at the French Civil Aviation Authority, told the conference.
Meanwhile, a persistent complaint has been the lack of coordination among EU member states. For example, Belgium has a drone training and licensing regime that does not recognise similar certificates from other EU countries. So while a Belgium operator can fly a drone in the Netherlands, a Dutch operator cannot fly a drone in Belgium. In fact, the latter must “pay 2000 euros to re-validate what you already got in another European country,” as one conference participant said.
Overall, the conference concluded that air traffic management is flying blind into a dark and frightening new sky. Lissone showed participants a slide with likely aviation activity at different levels of the atmosphere between 2020 and 2025. At the highest altitude – in space – he anticipates hundreds of orbiting vehicles, manned or unmanned. For ‘very high level’ operations, up to 62 miles above sea level (i.e., sub-orbital), he believes tens of thousands of vehicles will be flying, including private-sector balloons and drones launched by companies such as Google and Facebook. Below that, more traditional vehicles using instrument or visual flight rules will number in the thousands. And below 500 feet, tens of millions of drones will buzz, their operators often young and untrained.
On the subject of training, the verdict of conference speaker Koen de Vos, drone policy officer within the Commission’s Directorate-General on Mobility and Transport, was grim.
“There are no harmonised rules on training,” he said. “All nations have adopted their own rules with their own philosophies. The first step is to adopt common rules, including on training.”
In one workshop, participants learned that millions of euros of research money was being wasted because academics do not have venues to test their drones. In another, ‘blood drones’ carrying precious blood for transfusions in the aftermath of an accident could not be tested because they were not allowed to fly over urban areas, where they would be most useful. In yet another, a drone operator complained that the lack of test ranges reflected inflexible rules.
In the Netherlands, for example, if a testing site has more than twelve take-offs and landings in a year, then it must be officially declared an airport – with all the regulations and costs that such a declaration implies.
A persistent theme was that government officials have little understanding about the true scope of the problem, or even what the industry entails. One expert said “they don’t have a clue. They think we’re talking about toys.” Another rued that regulatory processes “need to be quicker. The normal timeline of 5-15 years is just not possible now.”
That said, some progress has been made, even if, in the words of one participant, the problem of drone traffic management “needs to be resolved yesterday”.
The EU will probably agree on draft drone legislation by end-2107. But the devil, or perhaps the drone, will lie in the details. Having waited so long to catch up to a constantly evolving technology, there is a real danger that whatever they adopt will be out of date by the time they sign it. So it is vital that they start paying attention, and listening to what industry experts tell them now. firstname.lastname@example.org