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The Sky Is A Limit

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According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. Drones, also referred to as remotely piloted aviation systems, are usually employed by military services but increasingly in a number of commercial and civil applications.


Types of drones

There are two types of drones:

  • Remotely piloted aviation systems (RPAS), where the aircraft is controlled by a human pilot from a distant location, these being the only types of drones that can be authorised currently for use in European Union (EU) airspace
  • Unmanned drones, which are automatically programmed without being piloted, even remotely, and which are not yet authorised for use, neither by ICAO nor under EU rules.

“To foster innovation and support the European RPAS market, coherent rules are necessary.”

Use of civil drones

The term ‘civil’ drones covers remote craft that are used for purposes such as delivering mail, (eg. Amazon’s Octocopters project for the speedy delivery of parcels), and inspecting infrastructure, such as oil platforms at open sea, dams, dykes, power grids or rail tracks (eg. Germany’s train operator has announced it plans to use drones equipped with cameras to pursue graffiti sprayers and prevent metal theft). National authorities and more than 1,000 licensed companies (mostly small and medium sized firms) in European countries that have introduced relevant legislation (including France, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, UK, Sweden) are also increasingly using drones for photography, land surveying and disaster relief actions, for instance to overfly flooded areas or to support firefighting in forests or buildings. In other countries, drones support precision farming through more effective and timely application of fertilisers or insecticide while providing efficient crop inspection.


Future use of drones

In the near future, UAVs could be used to carry out many tasks, including jobs which are dirty, dull or dangerous for people, including search and rescue as well as construction repair work. Drones are expected to assist industry in developing more efficient wind turbines to produce more ‘green’ electricity, or to complete coverage of telecoms networks in a cost-effective way. Micro-drones could be used to tackle gas or chemical leaks, or could be programmed to act like bees to pollinate plants. Overall, this sector is evolving very fast with industries signalling their interest in adapting drones for services for certain markets.


The size of the drones m arket in Europe

As drone technology is developing, the market for civil drones is rapidly increasing. According to the European Commission, in the next ten years civil drones are estimated to be worth 10% of the aviation market, which represents an amount of approximately e15 billion a year. There are already more than 1,700 different types of drones produced globally by about 500 official manufacturers (mainly in the military sector with US and Israel being world leaders), with about one third located in Europe. Following industry estimates, the drones manufacturing industry may create up to 150,000 European jobs by 2050. For all these reasons the European Council, in December 2013, asked the European Commission to develop a framework for the safe integration of RPAS into civil airspace as from 2016.


Legal framework applicable to civil drones

To foster innovation and support the European RPAS market, a set of coherent rules is necessary. The rule-setting authority is the ICAO, the United Nations body dealing with civil aviation. The ICAO allows drone operations provided that a national authority gives a specific authorisation, such as authorising the use of drones in non-segregated airspace (this means in the same airspace used by manned air traffic). As a general rule, these authorisations are typically restricted to specific operations under specific conditions to avoid hazards (for example, minimum distance from airports, no-fly zones etc).


Regulations on civil drones are still national

Some EU member states, such as Sweden, France, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, Lithuania and the UK have already adopted legislation for simple operations by light RPAS to avoid this case-by-case authorisation process. However, national authorisations do not benefit from mutual recognition and do not allow for European-wide activities, either to produce or to operate drones. The authorisation procedures also do not provide a coherent framework with the necessary legal safeguards in relation to concerns about safety, security, privacy and liability to be built in.


New legal challenges emerge

So drones are already beginning to appear in the European skies but there are no clear general rules, at national or at European level, which put in place the necessary safeguards to protect the safety, security and privacy of people.

Alongside the expansion in the commercial use of RPAS, drones have become increasingly popular for leisure users. In 2014, a number of drone-related incidents were reported in various European jurisdictions. For instance, in Serbia, nationalist fans used a drone to disrupt a football match between the national teams of Serbia and Albania. In France, drones were detected ‘buzzing’ close to a nuclear power station. Last summer, in the UK an unidentified drone came close to hitting a passenger aircraft landing at Heathrow airport.


Towards a coherent regulatory framework

The development of a competitive drones market in Europe will rely on a coherent policy and regulatory framework. The European policy framework concerns civil rules and commercial operations, in line with EU competence, but does not address military applications. It focuses on aspects related to safety rules, airworthiness, protection of citizen’s rights, privacy, safeguarding secrecy of communications and support for industry.

“There are no clear rules, at national or European level, for necessary safeguards.”

Strict EU safety rules are necessary

Rules to avoid accidents need to be developed by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Such rules must be compatible with ICAO standards by safeguarding an equivalent level of safety in comparison with regular, manned, aviation. However, to avoid stifling the existing industry, safety rules need to be developed and applied in proportion to the risk that RPAS flights present. Since most firms use small craft weighing less than 20 kg, member states must retain a degree of flexibility in regulating these craft to respond to local markets and support growth in the industry, where many technological challenges are at stake, such as the need for craft to detect and avoid obstacles on the ground and in the air. The European Commission should implement its plans to incorporate RPAS into existing aviation research programmes, such as the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research Joint Undertaking (SJU) and the Horizon 2020 research programme.


Protection of citizens’ rights is crucial

Drones are currently used for or have been proposed for use in domestic surveillance, licence-plate reading, interception of text messages and cell phone calls, and hacking into WiFi networks. Infrared sensors, high-powered cameras and facial recognition may also expand their capabilities into even more controversial realms. Drones equipped with cameras with a recording function may infringe intellectual property or personality rights. As drone operations combine flexibility, discretion and low costs with sophisticated sensing and a storage capacity of ever increasing amounts of data, there are certainly concerns about civil liberties and human rights.

To efficiently tackle ethical questions and societal concerns over misuse and unauthorised surveillance, drone applications need to be subject to the rules contained in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. These include the respect for the right to personality, the right to individual privacy and family life, as well as the protection of personal data. To guarantee an acceptable level of protection, the operation of drones has to be subject to permanent control and monitoring by national data protection authorities.

But existing data protection rules have to be interpreted in a flexible manner to strike the right balance between the conflicting interests at stake between industry, operators, state and citizens. In this direction, the forthcoming EU data protection regulation must remain technology neutral to accommodate the unique characteristics of RPAS.


increasing security to limit criminality

Drones may also be used as weapons or tools for other potentially unlawful actions. Terrorists, political extremists, criminals or rogue states could use RPAS to jam the navigation or communication signals of other drones or hijack ground control stations. Security aspects are vital when developing the necessary information streams to manage 4D trajectories in future air traffic management systems. Security requirements will then need to be translated into legal obligations for all relevant players, such as air navigation service providers.

Moreover, criminal laws may also come into play, and have to be tailored as the courts and lawmakers decide how to apply laws relating to stalking, harassment, wiretapping, espionage, copyright infringements and interception of private communications.


third party liability and insurance

From a civil law perspective, apart from any legal provisions which would restrict the use of civilian drones for the purposes of surveying an area, the use of drones in urban airspace is likely to carry the risk of accidents involving personal injury and property damage.

But the current third-party insurance regime has been established mostly for manned aircraft. The Commission will assess the need to amend the current rules to accommodate RPAS and promote the development of an efficient insurance market. In such a market, fees have to correspond to the real financial risk estimated from evidence from incidents and accident reporting.

Public awareness of safety hazards associated with the use of craft has to be increased and debate about acceptable uses of drones opened. Third party liability insurance needs to be made compulsory as a condition for licensing operators to cover compensation for accidents caused by professional or leisure users.

“EU data protection regulation must accommodate the characteristics of RPAS .”


It is clear that mastering civil drone technology is a key factor for the future competitiveness of the European aeronautics industry. The European Commission should support the emergence of a RPAS market and the competitiveness of related industrial sectors, making use of instruments such as the Horizon 2020 research agenda and the COSME programme (Competitiveness of Enterprises and SMEs, which also runs to 2020).

Operational and technical rules also need to be further developed to ensure that civil drones can fly like ‘normal’ air traffic and be integrated among conventional aircraft in non-segregated airspace without affecting the safety and the operation of the aviation system.

The growing interest in using pilotless drone aircraft is bringing new regulatory challenges, writes Leonidas Kanellos.

Intermedia Issue:
Vol 43, Issue 2
Issue Date:
June 2015

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