Today's aviation rules are however not adapted to drones whose full economic potential will only be unleashed if a number of legitimate concerns are addressed, the first of which is safety. That is why the European Commission proposed to set up an EU-wide framework for drones.
What is the issue?
Existing aviation rules were conceived for large manned aviation and are not adapted to drone operations and their rapid growth. Over the last months, there have been reports of near-miss incidents between drones and aircrafts. It is therefore critical to take action to ensure that drones can be safely integrated into the airspace and be able to communicate with existing airspace users, such as airliners.
In addition, drone operations present a number of new issues which are not, or much less, present in civil aviation in general. Drones can invade privacy by flying very close to persons or into their “private space” such as a home garden. Moreover, many drones carry recording or sensing equipment, be it for navigation or for the purposes of photography or remote sensing. The data captured by that equipment is likely to be stored and/or processed, raising data protection issues.
Why do we need EU action?
While the market for drones – and especially small drones – is rapidly developing and growing, common European rules only cover those weighing above 150 kilograms. Below this threshold, Member States are responsible to regulate.
Several Member States have already adopted drone rules – mostly for the smaller category below 25kg and non-complex operations. While national rules allow expertise to grow, these rules are diverging and cause a fragmentation of the EU internal market. Such fragmentation hampers the development of new products and the swift introduction of technologies. Companies – especially SMEs – need legal certainty in order to invest and create jobs. Diverging national rules may also create safety hazards.
For the EU to remain a global leader in this area, and to ensure that the rights and interests of citizens are upheld, action at EU level is necessary.
What has the Commission proposed?
In December 2015, the Commission proposed to create an EU-wide framework for drones as part of its Aviation Strategy. The Commission proposed in particular to abolish the obsolete 150 kilograms threshold, so that the European Union is given the competence to regulate drones regardless of their weight.
The Commission also proposed that all drones are covered, even smaller ones. However, the rules must be proportionate to the risk ("operation-centric" or "risk-based" approach).
It is important to note that the Commission's proposal only contains basic requirements and principles, on the basis of which technical rules and standards will then have to be adopted. This will be the case as soon as the European Parliament and the 28 EU Member States (the Council) adopt the Commission's proposal through the EU ordinary legislative procedure. This procedure is currently ongoing.
Why did the Commission propose an operation-centric approach? What does it entail?
This approach reflects the fact that drones can be used for a large number of missions (recreational, exploration, delivery, etc.) that all display different levels of risks for other airspace users. This complexity could not be reflected by a framework only based on criteria such as weight.
The operation-centric approach also ensures that new developments are not hampered by unnecessarily heavy and costly rules and procedures, which is in line with the Commission's Better Regulation approach.
While the European Parliament and the 28 EU Member States are still working on the legislative proposal, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has already started to look into the future detailed rules and standards. EASA propose to separate drones into three categories (low, medium, high risk). For each category, different levels of stringency would apply, for instance as regards identification or geo-fencing.
What else should be done to safely integrate drones into the airspace?
Many drones will fly well below the levels used by traditional aviation traffic – below 150m. This is also where the most dynamic part of the drone service markets can develop in the short term, allowing for a denser traffic of operated drones, including in cities. A particular attention will therefore have to be paid to this level of the airspace (between 0 and 150 meters), which is being referred to as the "U-Space".
There, a system akin to an automated traffic management will have to be developed. It is an indispensable building block to keep very low level drone traffic safe – and to offer the structure to introduce real priority measures like registration and identification – hence tackling privacy and security issues.
What EU funding is available?
Under Horizon 2020, the EU has already committed €44m of traditional grants through SESAR on the integration of drones into the airspace. This is made up of:
- €9m call for exploratory research, open to all industry with overwhelming interest;
- €30m call for industrial R&D open for members of the SESAR Joint Undertaking.
- And a €5m call for very large demonstrators. The call is also open to all and will be opened very soon.
What are the next steps?
The European Parliament and the 28 EU Member States (the Council) are expected to adopt the Commission's proposal in the first half of 2017. Technical rules and standards will then be laid out on the basis of the ongoing work of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
EASA published a consultation document on 22 August 2016. A formal proposal is foreseen for mid-2017, as soon as the European Parliament and the Council complete the legislative procedure.
As regards the U-Space, the so-called Warsaw Declaration signed on 24 November 2016 invited the European authorities to outline, within six months, this concept. This outline should address issues relating to business models and governance and include the concept of operations.
The Commission will also create an expert task force to monitor, advise and assist:
- The establishment of the regulatory framework, including the timely delivery of industry standards;
- The efficacy and funding of drone integration projects; and
- The development of the U-Space.
The end goal is to deliver a fully functional drone service market in 2019.
 "State drones" carrying out missions such as customs, police, search and rescue, firefighting and coastguard would however not be covered.