In recent decades, political movements like the rise of the European Union have led to removing barriers that inhibit trade between nations. But in the skies above many of those European nations, Cold War-era regulatory walls keep air commerce and nations apart.
A UAV operator wanting to operate both in Belgium and Germany must apply for licensing in both places, where laws of operation might differ significantly. The time it takes to receive the license also is likely to differ.
For all its progress in recent years, Europe is stuck in its regulatory past and the drone industry is suffering because of it. In Europe, a pilot license is needed to operate a drone. Not so in the United States, where drones capable of being preprogrammed by operators for flights are gathering information in quarries, construction sites and elsewhere around the country.
There is a lot of hope for progress in the European UAV community, given the efforts to modernize regulations. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) recently took public comments on its plan to streamline UAV regulations and approval processes across Europe. The idea is to unify the regulations throughout Europe and help businesses thrive because of it.
The opportunity to learn that could result from a European rule change also is being noted by many industry watchers. The fact that EASA’s new rule could provide a regulatory framework for reporting data on incidents like near-misses and collisions between drones and manned aircraft seems rich with possibility. Unlike the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which allows pilots to self-report such data, Europe doesn’t have a similar system in place.
Because of Europe’s fragmented drone regulations, some drone firms are finding it tough to do business there.
“Today, you have a situation where if I want to sell my services in one country, I can’t do it if I’m working in another—I’ll need a new permit and new license. The whole purpose of the [EASA] legislation is to create a level playing field. It also opens up other markets,” said Marc Kegelaers, CEO of Unifly.
The proposed EASA rule defines the technical and operational requirements for the drones, including the remote identification of drones and geofencing. Pilots’ qualifications are addressed. Drone operators will have to register themselves, except when they operate drones lighter than 250g.
“For operations that pose higher risks, an operational risk assessment will define the requirements that the operator needs to comply before flying the drone. The proposal also provides special alleviations for people flying model aircraft – which are also drones – to recognize the good safety records in aero modelling,” EASA stated.
EASA member nations will be able to define zones in their territory where drones are prohibited, or where regulatory requirements are alleviated. The changes are long in coming, some say.
“There’s a desperate need to harmonize regulations in Europe. We’re hoping by 2021, all the [European] countries will be uniform [in UAV regulations],” Kegelaers said.
Industry experts are buoyed by the prospect of a much easier, streamlined regulatory process in Europe.
“EASA makes me very optimistic,” said Hendrik Bodecker, CFO and Founder of Drone Industry Insights. “They have considered the risks of operations, with different rules for high-risk and low-risk. This approach will streamline all kinds of standards for drones.”
Kegelaers and others in the drone industry believe greater competition in Europe will drive investment and improvement in technology. Unified regulations in Europe would provide a bigger market for competitors and thus, more startup money.
Some of those new funds could be used to expand into barely tapped markets around the world. This could bode well for Facebook’s plan to bridge the digital divide between the developed and undeveloped parts of the world by way of drones providing Web service to those remote locales.
Many African countries are implementing regulations that will enable and promote the use of drones. These countries see drones as an aid to economic development and want to create drone corridors between cities, Kegelaers said.
Applications of UAVs such as getting medical supplies from one place to another are of great interest to some African countries. Some nations want to use drones to investigate poaching, or illegal tree-cutting.
The next step in the regulatory world regarding drones might be a uniform, worldwide method by which incidents that occur during a flight are logged and recorded for later study. The ability of operators to report operations data to aviation officials, wherever they may be located while working, is important.
“I see it as progressive in the US that you can report and provide data,” Bodecker said. “France and the UK have progressive rules, but nowhere to provide the data.”
Cooperation between operators and regulators, and interoperability between diverse platforms, are on the rise.
Jonathan Evans, CEO of Skyward, is president of the Global UAS Traffic Management Association (GUTMA), a global standards body that promotes interoperable, networked aerial robotic systems in regulated airspaces. The work enables him to meet with industry stakeholders and regulators all over the world to discuss the interoperability of such systems.
“What’s fascinating to me is that, much like at the dawn of aviation when powered human flight was achieved at virtually the same moment (by historical standards) in multiple different countries, the notion of connecting drones to a network and deploying them into software-defined, regulated airspace is a common technological truth at this point,” Evans said. “Industry is starting to build tech based on open interoperable blueprints and regulators are starting to endorse those technological tools to manage the airspace. This is reflected in programs like LAANC in the US, U-Space in Europe, and similar programs across Asia. Ultimately, the regulators of the world will have an increasingly sophisticated set of technological tools to offer access to their airspace, and these aerial robots should be as free to programatically cross borders as secured packets of information on the Internet.”