UAVs get warm welcome in Swiss civilian airspace

 - May 11, 2007, 6:54 AM

Don’t be alarmed if you see some unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) going about their business in the skies over Switzerland. While authorities in the U.S. and the rest of Europe try to reconcile safety issues with a growing demand to allow UAVs to fly in civil airspace, Switzerland already has been proving the concept.

For several years, Ranger UAVs–produced as a joint venture between Israel Aircraft Industries and Switzerland’s Ruag Aerospace (Booth No. 1470)–have been certified for operation in civil airspace by the Swiss air force. From the beginning, it was a requirement that the Ranger be able (and allowed) to fly in civilian airspace, despite the fact that Swiss airspace is usually quite full and criss-crossed with busy European airways.

However, Switzerland’s location at the heart of Europe’s air traffic management map means that there is no airspace reserved for the military, neither for UAVs nor for other military aircraft. Consequently every military aircraft has to share the country’s civilian airspace or it can’t fly–and that includes UAVs.

As there is no civilian regulation for UAVs yet available worldwide, the only choice for Switzerland was to develop its own solution. Alongside the civilian airworthiness authority, there is a military airworthiness authority and together they built up a national regulation for UAVs.

This regulation is based mainly on the former Joint Aviation Authorities’ JAR 23 and JAR VLA, but the parts not relevant for UAVs were removed and replaced by more appropriate requirements. A focal point, for example, was redundancy and every flight-critical system of the Ranger is at least dual-redundant, with many items triple-redundant. Even the landing system has its redundancy, with an emergency parachute functioning as a backup to minimize risk to third parties in case of malfunctions.

But after more than 2,000 missions and 5,000 operational flight hours over Switzerland and in Finland (to which the Ranger has been exported), the parachute system has never been used. Although the Ranger primarily flies in military roles in Switzerland, it is increasingly deployed for civilian operation, and the air force has become a service provider for paramilitary tasks such as police work or border control.

For example, in the spring of 2005, police in the Swiss canton of Uri asked the air force to provide traffic observation services, with the Ranger monitoring Alpine transit routes. This cooperation between the Uri police and the air force was so successful that Easter weekend traffic in the following year was similarly monitored. This enabled real-time video to be viewed in the police operations center.

In a quite different operation last November, Swiss border guards asked for the UAVs to monitor the frontier regions of Mendrisiotto, Malcantone and Locarno for four nights. As a result, four persons who tried to cross the border illegally were tracked by the Ranger’s infrared camera and intercepted by a patrol unit.

Encouraged by these and other successes, the Swiss Federal Council has approved use of the Ranger, as well as Eurocopter Super Puma helicopters in support of the Border Guard until the end of this year.

The Ranger operates up to about 10,000 feet on these civilian missions. At lower altitudes, data protection rights and noise concerns have prompted some complaints, but civil airspace users appear to have no qualms about sharing the space.