By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – The EU’s Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research Joint Undertaking (SESAR) released on 16 June its “vision paper” for drone use in the operational area known as the “U-Space” – that is, up to 150 meters in altitude. This “unmanned” space is becoming economically precious territory for drone operators and services such as infrastructure inspection and product delivery come online.
But what does the U-Space plan actually mean? While not legally binding, it lays out guidance for the operational area’s development and use that could well become Commission-mandated policy by 2019.
But, as the Commission puts together its proposal for a continent-wide drone regulatory framework, large private companies interested in the drone sector are biding their time. They know well that diving into the market now and adapting their business models to national standards could prove premature. After all, the EU will eventually drop its own regulatory framework into place to override national efforts.
Indeed, drone practitioners, industry stakeholders and policymakers gathered at Brussels’ Royal Military Academy for a drone conference on 13-14 June to review when and how those EU regulations would eventually drop from the sky, and what they would squash beneath them. The answers are still not crystal clear.
As Stéphane Morelli of France’s Féderation Professionelle du Drone Civil told the gathering: “We face expectations for new regulations and new markets regarding civilian drones.” But a big part of the problem is that national standards are notoriously difficult for multinational companies to accommodate because they diverge. “In France, it’s quite easy to become a remote pilot,” he said. “In Belgium, it’s quite difficult. So if you are French and you want to be a pilot in Belgium, it’s impossible.”
For this reason, he said, drone companies still tend to be small, even through their economic potential remains enormous. “You don’t need billions of euros to create [a drone company],” he said. “The big companies are not quite committed to this market. They’re waiting for the fish to be more fat, and then they’ll eat them. In France we now have 4000 companies. What will the number be after the regulatory framework drops into place?”
Koen de Vos, who works on drone policy at the Commission’s Directorate-General of Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE), laid out the challenges for creating a drone regulatory framework by 2019. “We’re talking about servicing a market whose worth, by 2020, could reach billions of euros,” he said.
Those challenges include incorporating the full automation of piloting and air traffic control into Europe’s aviation structure; a denser air traffic environment; single operators for multiple drones; the safety and privacy concerns of citizens; and fast-developing technology that demands any EU-wide legislation be ‘future-proofed’.
And what is the Commission delivering to meet these challenges?
De Vos pointed first to the European Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA’s) “Notice of Proposed Amendment” (NPA) on technical drone rules, currently open for comment on EASA’s web site until 15 September 2017. Comments collected will, in turn, be incorporated into what he called a developing EU drone ecosystem. “We want to start with this emerging market by 2019,” he said.
De Vos also pointed to U-Space plan’s important research-and-development financing available through SESAR and the use of expert groups as sounding-boards for EU drone policies. “Will we be able to deliver?” he asked. “Nobody knows. But we must trust the process.”
Mark Palmer of Thales Air Traffic Management spoke glowingly of the market potential involved. “Drones have a strong commercial business case that’s going to have corporations pushing through to use them,” he said. Areas that drone use could revolutionise include agriculture, tower maintenance, police and security monitoring and even fire-fighting. “Companies could buy a drone every time they need to do an inspection, and it would still make business sense,” he said. “A drone could be sitting in a shed at the end of a paddock, do its job [inspecting agricultural land], and then plug itself back in to recharge.”
One area represents the elusive El Dorado of drone use, however. “Personal air travel is the ultimate goal of UTM [unmanned traffic management],” he said. “We have no idea how many drones they’ll be in five years, but we need to build to infinity.”
But Uwe Meinberg, who teaches at Germany’s Brandenburg Technical University, threw cold water on such pie-in-the-sky optimism. “I would like to talk about wishful thinking.” Many drone enthusiasts, he said, do not fully understand drone limitations. For example, utilities would like to use more drones for high voltage pylon inspection but the powerful electric and magnetic fields around pylons could disrupt drone use, as could overgrown vegetation. And to find pylons, drones would need precise geographic coordinates whereas in many cases that precision is lacking.
Yet the biggest limitation could be more practical. Pointing to a map of Germany’s mobile phone coverage, he said large swathes of the country’s territory remain “out of reach” for mobile phone users, particularly deep in the countryside where most pylons are located. Without high-speed networks, most commercial drones are useless, he argued.
He warned against the private sector buying into the hype. “Big companies won’t order drone services if they’re not achieving their goals,” he said. “Feeling betrayed, they’ll never order a drone again.”
As Thales’ Palmer admitted, such travel would “need to absolutely work without issue”. But if we know anything from the history of air travel, it’s that there will be issues, some of them deadly. It’s fine for regulators to aim for a perfect drone world, but they should plan for a messy one, filled with nasty accidents and risk management.
As for the EU, its continent-wide drone regulatory framework takes off around 2019. In terms of drone evolution, that’s a long time away. Some uncomfortable and costly regulatory adjustments lie ahead for those small drone operators who have crafted their business on national regulations. Buyer beware.