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The development of drones (RPAS or Unmanned Aircraft Systems) started in the 50s and matured over the years in the military context. Now, drones are entering the civil market, opening a new chapter in the history of aviation. Today, anyone can buy a small, remotely controlled aircraft and use it in civil airspace. From movie directors, journalists and hobbyists to farmers and disaster relief teams, popularity of the RPAS technology is growing by the day.

What are ‘RPAS’ / ‘Drones’?

Unmanned aircraft / Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV): An aircraft which is intended to be operated with no pilot on board is classified as unmanned (unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)). Its flight is controlled either autonomously by onboard computers (autonomous aircraft) or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle (remotely piloted aircraft). All unmanned aircraft, whether remotely piloted, fully autonomous or combinations thereof, are subject to the provisions of Article 8 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Doc 7300), signed in Chicago on 7 December 1944 and amended by the ICAO Assembly.

RPA, RPAS, Drones?

RPA: Remotely Piloted Aircraft – an unmanned aircraft which is piloted from a remote pilot station.
RPAS: Remotely Piloted Aircraft System, i.e. a remotely piloted aircraft, its associated remote pilot station(s), the required command and control links and any other components as specified in the type design.
Drone: “Drone” is a common term used for an unmanned aerial vehicle (although often used also as an alternative term for RPAS). 

RPA, RPAS, Drones?
RPA, RPAS, Drones?
Integrating drones into airspace

Acknowledging the potential this technology has for innovation and benefit to society, it is absolutely critical that the technology is introduced safely, in particular with regard to existing manned aviation. A dramatic rise of ‘near misses’ with manned aircraft and of sightings of unmanned aircraft has prompted industry and regulators across the world to speed up efforts for developing standards and regulations. To allow for a safe and sustainable growth of this new sector, carefully thought through and effective regulation is needed at European level.

Given the shape and size of drones, they might not be visible to other traffic, especially when speed is taken into account. Drones – even light ones below 1kg – can cause immense damage to helicopters. The impact of damage to fixed-wing commercial aircraft is not even evaluated yet.

This lack of scientific and engineering research on the effects of drone collisions with aircraft is exacerbated by a number of uncertainties related to this new technology. Also, questions are still open on how to deal with oversight and rule enforcement, reporting of drone incidents and necessary qualifications of the drone-pilot/operator.

The potential safety (and security) risks are significant. Therefore, the safety and security aspects need to be carefully addressed when integrating RPAS into the existing airspace, including at very low level (e.g. below 50 meters above ground level).

Given the potential impact on the safety of manned aviation – especially if/when common airspace is used or in relation to low-level helicopter operations – ECA’s pilot experts have been assessing the potential safety risks of drones and developed technical positions on various aspects to ensure safety is not compromised.

Pilots' perspective

The pilots’ baseline is to prioritise the safety of real people, whether in the air or on the ground, over the ability or right to operate a drone. Given the fact that most drones in the Open category will be mass market consumer products, their future technical development will be very much consumer and market driven. Any regulation needs to take these factors into account.

For this reason, European pilots have drawn attention to a number of design and operational requirements for drones, especially in the currently developed by EASA Open category. Drone operations must remain within the operator’s visual line of sight (VLOS) and at sufficient distance from 3rd persons or crowds as a safety measure. In addition, pilots consider that auto avoidance of restricted areas – e.g. by geo-fencing, or transponder technology – is a must in order to provide adequate collision prevention. Finally, in a second Position Paper on RPAS, pilots suggest some design requirements for the physical performance capability of drones in the Open category, e.g. maximum achievable distance from pilot of less than 500m horizontally and 50m in height.

However, whilst this 500m may be realistic in the case of comparatively large or highly visible devices, it seems implausible that the majority of drones currently in use that are not so large can be even seen at a distance of half a kilometre, let alone accurately controlled and able to meet avoidance obligations. Accordingly, research needs to be undertaken to set this maximum distance at an appropriate level.

Other technical requirements such as colour, visibility and lighting standards to allow visual recognition and avoidance and marking and registration of the drone to allow tracing of pilot/operator are also key. Europe’s pilots also urge for a unilateral obligation of drones to avoid manned aviation and a ban on operations in areas with manned aviation (e.g. accident sites, operational traffic areas).

An important aspect – is the enforcement of the future European rules. Strict enforcement of the rules – incl. mandatory registration of the drone to allow identification of the pilot – is paramount. That is because we can adopt the best rules in the world, but if we can't enforce them, they will have no effect.

All this will have to be backed by appropriate training and education of the drone pilot prior to operation. Moreover, every drone pilot must have a license, proportional to the risk of the drone and issued by the authority. Only a harmless toy-category should be exempted from this requirement. Mandatory insurance, non-punitive safety reporting obligations, and stricter rules for commercial operations all need to be part of the package, too.  

When designing a European regulatory framework for drones, care must be taken that safety is prioritised over commercial considerations, by carefully assessing the safety risks and providing effective and binding risk mitigating measures. While a certain degree of flexibility is required to facilitate the growth of this new sector, lax and light-touch regulation might not be a safe and sustainable way forward.

European initiatives for drone regulation

Since 2014, there is a visible strong political support for developing rules on drones. The European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union are calling for the safe, secure and environmentally friendly development of the drone industry as it is assumed to stimulate employment and technological development in the EU.

One central pillar of Europe’s future drone regulation at the European level is the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) which has a key role in proposing the technical safety rules on RPAS (both soft law, such as AMC or GM, and hard law). EASA has been tasked by the European Commission – following a High Level EU RPAS Conference in Riga – to develop a regulatory framework for drone operations as well as concrete proposals for the regulation of ‘low-risk’ drone operations.

In its development of draft rules on drones, EASA works closely with representatives of the Joint Authorities for Regulation of Unmanned Systems (JARUS), and gathers input from EASA Member States (MSs), drone industry and operators as well as ‘manned aviation’ stakeholders.

Process & timeline

In March 2015 EASA published its proposed regulatory approach for RPAS, called "Concept of Operations for Drones: A risk-based approach to regulation of unmanned aircraft". This was followed by the publication of an EASA Technical Opinion introducing a regulatory framework for the operation of unmanned aircraft, as well as the Prototype Regulation on Unmanned Aircraft Operations, published in the summer 2016. The framework proposes to divide drones in Europe and their associated regulatory regime(s) into three categories: Open, Specific and Certified.

According to EASA’s concept of operations, the regulatory framework for all three categories should set an adequate level of safety, but at the same time rules in each category should be proportionate to the risk of the specific operation. The Agency foresees that the ‘Open’ Category is established for the ‘low-risk’ drone operations and would not require authorisations by National Aviation Authorities. Operators and drone pilots in this group, whether commercial or not, would thereby only be subject to a minimal aviation regulatory system. For the ‘Specific’ (medium risk) and ‘Certified’ (higher risk) categories, EASA foresees more stringent requirements.

In late 2016 the Agency gathered a group of experts, including an ECA pilot representative, in an Expert Group advising the Agency (RMT.0230) on developing the regulation text leading to the publication of an NPA (2017-05). This was followed by a Comment Review Document (CRD) addressing the stakeholder comments to the NPA received by EASA. The CRD was eventually published together with the EASA Opinion (01/2018) in January 2018.

The Opinion will now serve as a basis for the European Commission to adopt concrete regulatory proposals later in the year. In parallel to this, the Agency assisted the European Commission with the draft revision of the EASA Basic Regulation. It would allow the Agency to regulate drones in all weight classes, eliminating the 150 kg threshold, below which the EU is currently not allowed to regulate. The Revision of EASA’s Basic Regulation is part of the more general “Aviation Package” that was presented by the EU Commission in December 2015. The proposal was submitted to the EU Parliament and Council for a formal co-decision process.

In November 2016, the Parliament Transport Committee adopted its position on the revised EASA Basic Regulation, with the articles on unmanned aircraft presenting an improvement compared to the original Commission proposal. In the beginning of 2016 the draft legislation entered the trilogue phase between the Council, Parliament and the Commission. The trilogue phase proved challenging in the course of 2017, but the Estonian Presidency managed to lead the interinstitutional negotiations to a conclusion on 22 December 2017. The agreement includes the first ever rules on drones, providing for the certification of higher-risk drones operations and the registration of drone operators meeting a certain threshold.

In the past, the EU Parliament’s Transport Committee has also drafted an own initiative report on RPAS. The so–called ‘Foster report' was approved in October 2015, along with a resolution for Safe use of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) in the field of civil aviation.

Capt. Thomas Mildenberger appearing at the European Parliament Transport Committee hearing on drones. What should regulators look at when penning down the new EU wide rules on drones? provides a thorough overview of the safety & privacy rules across Europe for recreational & professional users
Legal obligations, safety & privacy rules
Drone incidents and accidents

While there is huge scope for business opportunities, just one major commercial or private drone accident could hamper the entire industry’s progress. Yet, the number of accidents and incidents with drones worldwide is growing. In the US only, there have been 650 incidents involving drones flying too close to aircraft in 2015, compared to 238 for all of 2014, according to a statement released by the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).

In addition, the type of accidents and incidents involving drones is also changing completely the landscape. Reports of near-misses from crews on commercial airlines, emergency medical helicopter forced to take evasive action to avoid a drone, drones delaying fire-fighting procedures, drones flying in the vicinity of airports are just a few examples that have made recently the headlines across the world.

In the absence of an official RPAS accident and incident database, ECA has started collecting information about such events. Without claiming exhaustiveness, the ECA drone accidents and incidents repository (published in August 2015) illustrates different and significant drone accidents and incidents, mostly but not exclusively in Europe. A second volume of the repository, published in 2016, illustrates further incidents involving drones.

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