Innovators vs. Regulators: Will Civilian Drones Thrive in Europe?

by Inline Policy on 19 Dec 2014

In our recent analysis piece about the future regulation of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), we provided some insight into the main EU institutions and agencies involved in the creation of harmonised rules across Europe. Since then, the 2016 deadline the European Commission had initially set for new regulations to be approved has been removed, and not replaced.

Are international institutions, regional bodies, and individual countries acting fast enough? Will they be able to address the challenges that arise, whilst minimising the risks of this technology, and enable the sector to grow? In this piece we provide an update on the progress that European institutions and other bodies have made thus far. We will also draw on the views of the industry and explore the approach that the UK is taking.

European Institutions Push For A Common Framework

In recent years, the European Commission has emphasised the importance of regulating the RPAS sector to support its development, as it becomes increasingly concerned about the dominant position of the US and Israel (where the industry has grown the most), as well as from emerging markets.

Last August, the Commission opened a Consultation on opening the market for civil drones. Here are some of the most interesting results, which were recently released:

  • More than half of respondents said that: the use of RPAS poses a threat to security because they could be used for unlawful actions; and that the use of RPAS poses a threat to privacy or protection of personal data.
  • More than half of respondents said that barriers to access and fragmentation of the RPAS market was due to: differences in national rules on RPAS; a lack of a common EU framework; the lack of mutual recognition for national certificates; and gaps in existing EU legislation, which does not cover all aspects related to RPAS.
  • A large majority of respondents agreed that the EU should amend the safety legislation to cover all RPAS regardless of weight, but proportional to the risk associated with the specific RPAS operations. In addition, there was agreement that the implementation of the common rules would mostly remain at the Member State level.

At the Council of Ministers Transport Meeting on 8 October, Ministers were broadly in favour of a harmonised European approach to allow RPAS to fly in civil airspace. However, they also stressed the need to focus on safety and privacy protection. According to the Council of Ministers’ press release, a number of delegations said that “different drone types should be taken into account, for instance by authorising the simplest drones first”. Other Ministers pointed out that “current national rules should be taken into account and that EU-wide rules could be based on successful national rules.”

The European Economic and Social Committee, which enables civil society organisations from Member States to express their views at the EU level, recently released the following conclusions and recommendations:

  • One of the fundamental prerequisites for the use of small RPAS is the existence of harmonised rules in the areas of safety and training; privacy; data protection; liability; and insurance.
  • Europe will have to coordinate civil and military developments in this area, profiting from synergies where possible.
  • There is a need for as accurate a picture as possible of RPAS air traffic in connection with all aircraft in circulation.

European institutions, the majority of Member States and the industry as a whole seem to agree that a harmonised framework for RPAS in Europe is needed. However, uncertainty over the possible risks that are associated with this technology are not likely to disappear in the short-term.

Several Bodies Are Involved In Drafting New Rules

Creating a common regulatory framework for RPAS across Europe is a complex task that will need collaboration and input from several bodies. As Margus Rahuoja, Incoming Director-General at Mobility and Transport at the European Commission (DG MOVE) said: “it is challenging to integrate the specific roles and competencies of different organisations at different layers, local, national, European and international.” However, he also said that the Commission intends to take a risk-based approach rather than a compliance-based approach in order to avoid unnecessary regulatory burden for small companies.

There are a number of organisations involved in this process:

  • ICAO: International Civil Aviation Organisation
  • EASA: European Aviation Safety Agency
  • JARUS: Joint Authorities for Rule-Making on Unmanned Systems
  • EUROCONTROL: European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation
  • EUROCAE: European Organisation for Civil Aviation Equipment
  • SESAR Joint Undertaking: European public-private partnership that is managing the development phase of the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) Programme that will give Europe a high-performance Air Traffic Management infrastructure

Additionally, the European’s Commission Transport authorities are working closely with those in Home Affairs, Justice, and Enterprise & Industry departments.

Eric Sivel, Chairman of JARUS (a group of experts from National Aviation Authorities from around the world and regional aviation safety organizations), has said that the body, together with EASA, is focusing on smaller RPAS (below 150 kg), as the “larger RPAS have a market in the military domain, but in the civilian domain there is not much business done with those.” However, the Commission intends to eliminate the weight discriminant and take a risk-based approach. As such, both JARUS and EASA have been tasked with developing a regulatory framework that addresses the potential issues which may arise for all RPAS.

At present, however, companies based in Europe that manufacture civilian drones which weigh more than 150 kg, such as Singular Aircraft, are facing significant regulatory uncertainty. Whilst they should in principle be licensed by EASA, the agency has stated that special conditions for RPAS still need to be developed and published for external consultation. However, market actors don’t want to be left in a regulatory void. Derek Mendonça, Director at Singular Aircraft, says: “what we really are looking for is ‘acceptance’ to operate within a permitted and remote airspace away from urban population, providing key contributions and assistance on global matters that make a difference.” Interestingly, this aircraft has multiple applications that could be useful not only in Europe, but also in developing countries. For example, it can fly for up to 63 hours non-stop to areas which are difficult to access and transport loads of up to 2,050 kg with precision parachutes; capture data for border surveillance; or help with firefighting operations, amongst other uses.

In the future, it is likely that the framework created by JARUS is used to draft regulations at the national level in countries which are members of the organisation, such as the US, Russia, Australia, South Africa, or Brazil. The only key player that is not yet a member of JARUS is China.

From the industry’s perspective, a regulatory framework which is similar and mutually recognised across other parts of the world, such as North America or Asia, is also relatively important. For instance, being able to purchase equipment licensed in Japan, which then cannot be sold in Europe, would harm the industry.

Companies such as senseFly – a Swiss manufacturer of autonomous, ultra-light mapping drones which are sold in 60 different countries – are facing regulatory challenges in different parts of the world. Matthew Wade, Marketing & Communications Manager at senseFly, says “we believe that regulations which take into account the differences between the different drone platforms available – i.e. their weights, materials, flight speeds, and resulting kinetic energy – are key, especially when it comes to relatively heavy systems weighing over 2 kg, which can be a genuine threat to people and property.

Will countries outside the EU be able to reap the benefits of this technology faster? senseFly, for instance, has recently petitioned the FAA for an exemption to fly the eBee drone for surveying and agricultural purposes in the US. If approved, Wade says, companies would be able to operate the product immediately.

The UK At The Forefront Of Drone Regulation

The UK claims to be a leader in the development of regulation in the RPAS sector. In fact, the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s guidance for operations in the UK has been adopted by many other states across the globe and is one of the key documents being used by the European Commission in taking its proposal forward, according to Government sources. The proactive involvement of UK institutions are a reflection of the weight of the UK RPAS industry. In the UK, the majority of RPAS are less than 7kg mass, and so far this year, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has issued approximately 670 permissions (mainly for aerial photography and surveying).

The UK Government broadly supports the Commission’s initiative to understand the issues and develop a harmonised framework across Europe; but it has also highlighted the need to ensure that rules are proportionate to the risk and do not cause additional barriers to growth.

There is a UK cross-Government working group on RPAS, which involves departments across Whitehall – its objective is to address the issues that arise whilst maintaining the UK industry’s competitiveness in Europe and globally. According to Robert Goodwill MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the working group is at a very early stage in its work; however, he has already announced that to better understand the public’s perception and concerns about the use of RPAS, a series of public dialogue events will take place next summer. In addition, the Department for Transport and the CAA will host an industry forum in early February 2015 to better understand the technology and its potential applications.

These developments are important, as the Government is aware of the frustration of the UK RPAS sector, which is reluctant to commit resources on developing new technology whilst regulation is uncertain. An additional hurdle for regulators is that they are dealing with an industry which has produced very different aircrafts: they differ in how they are used, how they are built, their size and weight, etc.

Swarm Systems, for instance, is a London-based developer of RPAS in the smallest category: remote binoculars. They have created the Nano-Owl product – a tiny flying vehicle equipped with visible and thermal cameras, weighing just 60g. Systems which are similar to the Nano-Owl product are already being used in Afghanistan, Cyprus and the UK under military regulations, which sets a de minimis air vehicle weight of 60g (i.e. vehicles that weigh less than this threshold can fly anytime and anywhere). Stephen Crampton, CEO, and Jonathan Selbie, Business Development Director, say: “It seems to us that the EU could free its entrepreneurial potential instantly by cutting all the red tape in the smallest RPAS category.

As with any technology with new applications, it is also important for the industry to speak with one voice. ARPAS-UK, a trade organisation with more 160 members, was set up about a year ago with the aim of creating a 'unified voice that pushes for growth as leaders in the RPAS industry'. Philip Tarry, its Chairman, says: “to effectively secure the future of this embryonic industry, we have taken the initiative to actively highlight what is important for our members. Many lives are already reliant on a stable industry in which to invest, and society deserves to benefit from a technology that can facilitate so many positive things.” ARPAS-UK works closely with the CAA to ensure commercial operators can fly and facilitate new business opportunities, and also promotes safety standards.

What Can We Make Of All Of This?

The RPAS industry will need to follow new regulatory developments very closely and engage with key decision-makers both at the national and European level. Otherwise it will risk having to deal with a legislative patchwork that differs from country to country, which may make it difficult for businesses to prosper. The potential of this technology is huge, and innovators and regulators alike, together with the general public, will need to engage in discussions to reap the benefits, whilst minimising the risks.


Topics: European Politics, UK politics, UK business, Aviation, Big Tech, Drones

Inline Policy

Written by Inline Policy

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