After the Riga Declaration and the report of the TRAN Committee of the European Parliament the question is no longer “if” drones will proliferate in the airspace, but “how” we should regulate the several facets of this new phenomenon.
Around 15 years ago the majority of experts argued that the “invasion” of airspace by drones would have started at altitudes normally populated by traditional aircrafts (e.g. so called MALE around 20,000 feet and HALE between 30,000 and 50,000 feet), thus heavily interfering with traditional jet-liners. Reality has decided to go on a different way.
Today, we see thousand of little drones of very few kilos flying well below 500 ft, and often well below 100 ft, under the command of persons who are sometimes totally new to aviation and have no idea of airspace.
At 100 ft, outside the departure and landing path, there is not much aviation activity except for few emergency services. On the contrary, flying so low is extremely dangerous for manned aviation due to the presence of buildings, trees, chimneys, cranes, cables and other objects.
At the other extreme, above flight level (FL) 600 (= 60,000 feet, alias around 20 km), airspace has been traditionally underused due to material as well as economic obstacles in operating “normal” aircrafts at such altitudes; but now several companies are envisaging a growing number of stratospheric balloons, suborbital commercial rocket propelled aircraft as well as solar powered drones, with several metres of wing span, loitering there for weeks and acting as a communication relay.
ICAO still seems concentrated on commercial freight air transport by unmanned aircraft, in the range of altitudes commonly used by traditional jet-liners. In the EU the institutions are becoming increasingly aware that instead the priority is to regulate the safety, security, privacy and insurance of the “new comers” below 500 ft and above FL 600.
The involved operators are in fact entities that very often have no previous aviation experience (a young man treating the drone as a “toy” as well as companies like Google, with more experience in telecommunications and computers than flying aircraft). The challenge to the aviation authorities is thus enormous.
The five principles of the Riga Declaration adopted in March this year highlighted that for this new segment of aviation rules have to be “proportionate” (i.e. it is neither thinkable nor necessary that a surveyor using professionally a small drone should be submerged by the amount of regulatory paperwork that we see in a commercial airline) but they should be developed “now”, since the airspace is already “invaded” by drones and regulators are lagging behind technology.
Furthermore key elements are the public acceptance (which beyond safety, includes at least privacy and security) and the central role of the “operator”, which is not the remote pilot, but the company employing the pilot.
The abovementioned points are emphasized in the draft report of the TRAN Committee of the European Parliament (EP) on the matter, chaired by Jacqueline Foster.
Such a report reminded that today the EU is the world leader for the use of small drones, which highlights the necessity to use the so-called “operation centric” approach (i.e. in order to maintain safety the focus is on the operator, i.e. its organisation and its ability to respect some limitations, not on the reliability of the technical system as in the traditional aviation approach).
The EP welcomes the development of sports and recreational RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) but calls for a clear, globally harmonised and proportionate regulatory framework in the EU (i.e. below 150 kg).
The Parliament also considers that rules at EU and national level should clearly indicate the provisions applicable to RPAS in relation to the internal market and international commerce (production, sale, purchase, trade and use of RPAS); this means that in what EASA calls the “open” category, there could be no aviation administrative processes, but obligations for the vendors to inform customers on the operational limitations applicable to their drone.
This is in itself a major revolution in the regulatory approach to aviation.
Furthermore the EP believes also that privacy, data protection and any other applicable law, such as criminal, intellectual property, aviation and environmental law, should be specified in a notice for purchasers.
The hard point is now removing the limit of 150 kg for the EASA competence. It is clear that just lowering it to e.g. 30 kg would be ridiculous, since 95% of current operations employ drones of less than 20 kg.
States should therefore make a big step backwards on behalf of the internal market and this is the next major challenge for the EU citizens to overcome. The support obtained so far by the Commission and by the EP is however encouraging.