Europe Advances Small Drone Regulations, 'U-Space' System

 - January 13, 2017, 11:14 AM
A German-made microdrones md4-1000 quadcopter is depicted operating in an urban environment. (Photo: microdrones)

Policymakers plan to complete work this summer on rules allowing for uniform operation of small drones within European Union member states. The European Commission (EC) is also advancing a “U-Space” drone traffic management system comparable to the UTM model in the U.S., with the goal of “making drones part of the European citizens’ daily lives by 2019.”

The EC, the Council of the EU and the European Parliament plan “trilogue” meetings in February to reconcile their positions on amending the framing regulation of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to incorporate drones. They aim to complete the process by mid-year, said Greg Guice, a U.S. attorney who serves as manager and director of operations of the Brussels-based Drone Alliance Europe (DAE). Guice provided an update on European drone policy at the January 11 meeting of the International Aviation Club in Washington, D.C.

Revisions of EASA’s Basic Regulation will introduce EU-wide rules for drones, establishing design and operation requirements to ensure safety. Currently, individual nations have responsibility for drones weighing less than 150 kg (330 pounds). Last August, EASA released a more specific “prototype” regulation for consultation by member states; it proposes risk-based rules for two groups of drone operations—an “open” category that is minimally restrictive and a “specific” category that requires prior authorization of an operation. The draft regulation did not address a third, “certified” category, that EASA intends for larger drones that will fly with manned aircraft in unrestricted airspace.

EASA in November convened an expert working group to review the draft regulations. The EU aviation safety agency based in Cologne, Germany, plans to release a notice of proposed amendment in March, Guice said.

Also in November, EC Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc announced the U-Space initiative at the High Level Conference on Drones held in Warsaw. As described, U-Space—the “U” stands for urban—will be an automation-based construct for managing drone traffic at up to 150 meters (492 feet) and below. Similarly, in the U.S., NASA is leading the development of an Unmanned Aircraft System Air Traffic Management, or UTM, concept to manage small drones at low altitudes.  

The EC plans to convene a task force early this year to develop the U-Space concept and begin demonstration projects as soon as possible. It says it has set aside €40 million ($43 million) to invest in the effort. “The infrastructure, software and data to build a U-Space are already available,” the commission said. “The challenge is to integrate the existing building blocks into a genuine efficient system and, at the same time, tackle safety, security and environmental concerns.”

EU policymakers speak of a potential drone services market ranging anywhere from €200 million ($212 million) to several billion euros. Bulc envisions small drones being introduced into European airspace in a uniform way by the end of the current EC, which is led by Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg.

“My vision is to see drones starting to become part of our daily lives by the end of the Juncker Commission, without fear and anger from our citizens,” Bulc told the Warsaw conference, according to written remarks. “So my cards are on the table. Are you ready to meet this challenge by 2019?”

Guice’s group was formed in early 2016 to represent drone technology companies before European political leaders and regulators.

On its website, the DAE lists Altitude Angel, Amazon Prime Air, Delft Aerial Robotics, Gatewing, X (formerly Google X), Parazero Pyrotechnic Parachute Systems and Unifly as members. Andrew Charlton, a former Qantas Airways chief legal officer and executive with the International Air Transport Association and SITA, serves as DAE executive director. He is managing director of Aviation Advocacy, a consulting firm based outside of Geneva, Switzerland. Guice, a senior counsel with the firm Akin Gump in Washington, D.C., previously served as director of legislative affairs with the Federal Communications Commission.