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Sensitivity to innovation should be at the heart of drone regulation

3rd August 2017


In the latest in our Summer series of blogposts from our junior staff, Alexander Rowlatt, Consultant, writes about the future of legislation concerning drones.

Seemingly overnight unmanned aircraft or drones have become a feature of our skies. Whether used for covert military operations, spicing up the offerings of the ‘vlogging’ generation, or simply for recreational purposes, drones are set to further proliferate.

UPS and the internet retail behemoth Amazon are experimenting with drone-based delivery, whilst British Telecom (BT) is considering using drones to provide temporary internet access in hard-to-access areas and in disaster zones.

Regulating disruption

Disruptive technological revolutions have a habit of begetting regulatory responses.

Drones are no exception to this rule of thumb, and the European Commission is creaking into life on the issue and seeking to harmonise the EU’s regulatory approach which is currently fragmented at the Member State level. EU Transport Commissioner, Violeta Bulc has stated that the EU must “be in the driving seat and have a safe drone services market running by 2019. The EU needs to take a leading role worldwide in developing the right framework for this market to flourish, by unleashing the benefits for key economic sectors”. 

The Commission has proposed to regulate drones via the proposed revision of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Basic Regulation, which would see all sizes of drones fall under the scope of EU regulation, including those under 150kg currently regulated at the national level. Only Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), not autonomous systems, are covered by the proposal.

At the Commission’s request, on 16 June 2017 the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management (SESAR) Joint Research Undertaking – the expert, technical pillar of the EU’s Single European Sky (SES) Initiative – published its regulatory blueprint for altitudes up to 150m or ‘U-space’ in line with the November 2016 Warsaw Declaration

The blueprint outlines three basic principles that SESAR suggests should underpin drone regulation. U-space should be as safe as traditional airspace, through the introduction of an Air Traffic Management System similar to that in place for manned aviation. Such a system should provide information to allow automated and autonomous drones to navigate safely.

Basic services like registration, e-identification and geo-fencing – built in software that prevents drones from entering delineated areas – should be up and running by 2019, although measures will need to be reviewed and supplemented regularly.

These principles are intended to guide the work currently being undertaken on the revision of the EASA Basic Regulation by Member States, the industry, and the EASA, which has published a ‘proto-type’ draft implementing regulation. Under the proposal the European Commission will be given extensive powers to regulate certification, identification, design specification, and operating restrictions.

Drone advocacy

For businesses excited at the opportunities that drone technology represents, it is important to acknowledge the need for the sector to be regulated. In any event, a harmonized, as opposed to a fragmented, framework should be seen as a positive, in allowing drones to fully benefit from the Single Market.

Member States and MEPs are due to adopt their positions in the coming months, with the file expected to be closed under the Estonian Presidency, a deadline which businesses should get behind.

However, as with all disruptive technologies, it is important that regulation does not throttle innovative potential. Companies involved in the primary production of units and those seeking exploit them to provide services should engage proactively with the EASA and the European Commission's Directorate General for Mobility and Transport to ensure that the regulatory landscape remains sensitive to the industry’s potential. 

The above represents the view of the author and not necessarily that of Grayling.


Grayling Team

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