Europe plans to open its aviation market to the civil use of remotely piloted aircraft systems ( RPAS) in a safe and sustainable manner. The European Summit has already called for action by the European Commission to enable the progressive integration of RPAS into civil airspace 2016 onwards. Framing a roadmap for the same is a journey fraught with challenges.
Civil aviation contributes to an integrated logistical transport chain that aims to better serve citizens and society. It adds value through offering fast, reliable and resilient connections in a global network. By 2050, a number of different aircraft categories — diverse in size, performance and type — are expected to operate in the airspace. While some of these would still have pilots on board, many would be remotely piloted or fully automated. Opening the European market for remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) — or the civilian use of drones — is therefore an important step towards the aviation market of the future.
The European Summit of 19 December 2013 called for action to enable the progressive integration of RPAS into civil airspace from 2016 onwards. RPAS technology has matured rapidly in past years, and like many other aircraft technologies before it, is ready to make the shift from being purely military equipment to becoming a reliable new technology for civil use. In order to produce their full potential, RPAS should be able to fly like ‘normal’ air traffic and be integrated among ‘normally piloted’ aircraft in non-segregated airspace, that is, airspace open to all civil air transport.
In April this year, the European Commission adopted the Communication ‘A new era for aviation — opening the aviation market to the civil use of RPAS in a safe and sustainable manner.’ The communication sets out the EC’s views on how to address civil drones’ operations in a European-level policy framework, which will enable the progressive development of the commercial drones market while safeguarding public interest. Understanding the direction for future regulatory developments is important for the European industry when it comes to making decisions on further investments.
An emerging market to create jobs
Mastering RPAS technology will become a key to the future competitiveness of the European aeronautics industry. Currently, the US and Israel dominate the global RPAS manufacturing sector, building on expertise in the field of large military RPAS. Other non-EU countries, such as Brazil, China, India and Russia, also show potential to become strong competitors. A strong common EU market should offer a solid basis to compete at the global level. An enabling legal framework would not only provide the rules to manufacture the aircraft, but also gradually allow operations, starting from simple operations and growing in operational complexity. This would put operators in a position to gain valuable practical expertise and progressively develop their businesses.
Currently, the expansion of the RPAS market is inhibited by the absence of an adequate regulatory framework in most Member States, and the need to obtain individual authorisations from each Member State where manufacturers would like to sell or where providers would like to operate. A number of Member States have started developing national rules to facilitate this authorisation process, but in the absence of European standards — to be developed by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) — a true European Market will not emerge, hampering the development of this sector.
The core of the European RPAS strategy
The European strategy aims at establishing a single RPAS market to reap the societal benefits of this innovative technology and at dealing with citizens’ concerns through public debate and protective action wherever needed. It should also set the conditions for creating a strong and competitive manufacturing and services industry whcih can compete in the global market.
RPAS applications can only develop if the aircraft can fly in non-segregated airspace without affecting the safety and the operation of the wider civil aviation system. To this end, the EU must put in place an enabling regulatory structure to which the major players at the European and national levels can contribute. R&D efforts focusing on integration into civil airspace should also be increased and efficiently coordinated to keep the lead times for promising technologies as short as possible.
The progressive integration of RPAS into the airspace from 2016 onwards must be accompanied by adequate public debate on the development of measures which address societal concerns including safety, privacy and data protection, third-party liability and insurance or security. Finally, existing programmes should support the competitiveness of the European RPAS industry. This strategy should provide legal certainty and offer a reliable timing, so that industry can take investment decisions and create employment. As the RPAS market is global by its very nature, EU will also coordinate with international partners.
The regulatory framework
Safety is the paramount objective of the EU aviation policy. The current regulatory system for RPAS based on fragmented rules for ad hoc operational authorisations is an administrative bottleneck and hampers the development of the European RPAS market. National authorisations do not benefit from mutual recognition and do not allow for Europe wide activities, either to produce or to operate RPAS.
The regulatory framework should reflect the wide variety of aircraft and operations, keep rules proportionate to the potential risk and contain the administrative burden for industry and for the supervisory authorities. The regulatory framework would first focus on areas where technologies are mature and where there is sufficient confidence. Where certificates or licenses need to be issued, European rules will effectively deliver a system of mutual recognition within the single market for RPAS manufacturers, operators and other organisations.
The challenge will be to keep rules proportionate to risk, taking into account weight, speed, complexity, airspace class and place or specificity of operations, etc. The traditional approach of airworthiness certification, pilot licensing and operator licensing would need to be complemented by forms of light touch regulation.
Some of the key technologies are not yet available to allow for the safe integration of RPAS. Research and development (R&D) efforts will focus on the validation of these technologies. The technologies which need further development and validation are:
• Command and control, including spectrum allocation and management;
• Detect and avoid technologies;
• Security protection against physical, electronic or cyber attacks;
• Transparent and harmonised contingency procedures;
• Decision capabilities to ensure standardised and predictable behaviour in all phases of flight; and
• Human factor issues such as piloting.
Ensure security of RPAS operations
RPAS are not immune to potential unlawful actions. RPAS could be used as weapons, the navigation or communication system signals of other RPAS could be jammed or ground control stations hijacked.
The information needed to manage 4D trajectories in the future air traffic management system and to remotely control an aircraft will need to be communicated and shared in real time by different aviation operators to optimise the performance of the system. The identified security requirements will then need to be translated into legal obligations for all relevant players, such as the air navigation service provider, RPAS operator or telecom service provider, under the oversight of the competent authorities.
Protect citizens’ fundamental rights
RPAS operations must not lead to fundamental rights being infringed, including respect for the right to private and family life, and the protection of personal data. Amongst the wide range of potential civil RPAS applications a few may involve collection of personal data and raise ethical, privacy or data protection concerns, in particular in the area of surveillance, monitoring, mapping, or video recording.
Guarantee third party liability and insurance
Even with the highest safety standards, accidents may happen and victims need to be compensated for any injury or damage. The Commission will assess the current liability regime and third-party insurance requirement. It will, subject to the impact assessment, take the appropriate initiatives to ensure that adequate regulatory provisions are in place.
Support market development
The Commission will define specific actions under Horizon 2020 and COSME to support the development of the RPAS market and will ensure that the actors involved, in particular SMEs, have a comprehensive view of these tools. It will establish the necessary cooperation mechanisms with the work undertaken by the SESAR Joint Undertaking to avoid overlapping and leverage on the available resources.
Roadmap to the future
It is the right time to unlock the EU RPAS market with a combination of new and existing regulatory action at the European level dealing with all relevant issues, including the insertion of safety, security, privacy, and data protection requirements within existing EU rules in these areas. Also R&D efforts are needed to ensure the progressive integration of RPAS into civil aviation from 2016 onwards. In addition, the challenge is to make smart use of existing industrial programmes to bolster the competitiveness of RPAS industry and operators. The European Commission also intends to bring forward, where appropriate, legislative proposals to remove legal uncertainties that hinder the development of the European market and to give European citizens confidence that high levels of protection in terms of safety, security and privacy will be assured.