Brussels mulls U-Space drone ecosystem

Brussels is eyeing a new U-Space operational paradigm where the airspace needs of drones will rank alongside those of traditional commercial aircraft and space flight, writes Aimée Turner.

European transport commissioner Violeta Bulc announced the initiative in Warsaw at the high level conference “Drones as a leverage for jobs and new business opportunities”, where she outlined plans for a European drone services market.

“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,” said Bulc.

The conference called for a number of coordinated actions to develop a EU drone ecosystem and to deliver it by 2019, building on the guiding principles given in the Riga Declaration of December 2015  which sought to establish a European framework for drones as part of Europe’s Aviation Strategy.

As part of what is being termed as the Warsaw Declaration, Bulc said the Commission accepts the need for urgent action within the airspace dimension, in particular the development of the concept of the ‘U-Space’ on access to low level airspace especially in urban areas. As a consequence Brussels is inviting European authorities such as the European Aviation Safety Agency and the SESAR JU to outline, within six months, what this concept of operations will mean in reality, addressing issues relating to business models and governance.

Commissioner Bulc told the latest conference: “Drone technologies are a unique opportunity for the European economy to generate additional growth and prosperity: they open the door to new markets for innovative services with immense potential. I want the EU to remain on top of this, to steer and lead the global development of this technology.”

Bulc reported on the progress of several ‘pillar’ that would support a flexible framework to deal with the fast evolving technology. She said EASA’s revision of its Basic Regulation had made good progress and expected it to be agreed next year and that the agency was consulting with member states on its detailed prototype rules. “The key aspect here is the operation centric approach to keep rules simple and proportionate to the risk of the type of operation.”

A second airspace pillar would seek to guarantee flexible drone traffic regulation to allow it to adapt to local characteristics to support safety, security, privacy and environmental protection. “There are tough issues like geo-fencing to be dealt with,” Bulc said, who added that automated air traffic management would serve as the enabler for safe operations, particularly in the complex urban environment.

The third pillar – the U-Space – focused on access to airspace. “Each citizen or company should be able in principle to have access to low level airspace. I propose to call this U-Space. The U may be for urban but it is above all also for ‘you’; for each citizen and for each company to safely and efficiently use this airspace.”

She said the U-Space would establish the overall framework for registration, identification and geofencing requirements to reassure citizens over safety, security, and privacy concerns.

Funding the development of a drone ecosystem would also be a focus of activity. Today, grants are available through the SESAR European ATM R&D initiative’s access to Horizon 2020 funds where the EU has already committed €44m of traditional grants to develop the integration of drones. 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 JU and a €5m call for very large demonstrators which will be opened very soon.

“But traditional grants alone will not be enough if we want to be global leaders in creating a drone ecosystem,” she said. “I commit today to look for innovative ways of funding projects demonstrating the maturity of existing technologies and the feasibility of the requirements,” she said, adding this could include inducement prizes and innovative financial mechanisms.

Read: European drone UTM pegged at €200 million.

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[1]. 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.





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