European UAS users debate legislative framework

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The use of unmanned aircraft systems in the commercial domain is now a given, as a host of industries see the benefits of operating an autonomous vehicle to support their businesses.

Some years ago, the debate surrounding this proliferation centered around whether UAS would in fact be disruptive enough to have an impact on these commercial operations, but now it is more a case of how their use will expand further and what the technology will be able to do next, and almost more importantly, what framework will be utilized to support this growth.

One roadblock to this is the expectation that the regulatory framework that supports an increase in the commercial use of UAS has to be perfect, and will not allow for any misuse of these types of aircraft.

This is in part driven by the response that airspace violations by drones have caused, leading opponents to their use to call for more stringent regulations surrounding their use.

However, it is widely believed that commercial operators understand the regulatory requirements, and it is more the case that some amateur and hobbyist drone operators that do not operate safely are tarnishing the rest of the industry, although this should not necessarily be used as an excuse to hold it back.

In fact, it is arguably the case that it needs to be accepted that these systems will fail, and it is more a question of what happens when they do, and how they will safely be landed without damaging infrastructure or harming people.

“Whatever framework we put in place, there will always a percentage of people that don’t follow,” Peter Grinsted, UAS strategy lead for Atkins, told a Royal Aeronautical Society conference in October. “We can put as much regulation in place, but there will probably always be the individual who will disregard all of this. You can do so much, but you cannot go to a 100 percent solution.”

Funding source

In order for this framework – which may include registration, UTM and airspace permissions – to work, it will have to receive funding from somewhere, but where exactly that will be from is yet to be determined.

Andrew Sage, account director for airlines and airspace at NATS, claims that elements like registration and access permissions will have to be supported by the government, but ultimately it will be the end users that will have to pay for this framework.

He notes that because it is now a given that this will have to be put in place — and it is more a case of when, not if this will happen — there is a substantial amount of private investment going into it, which is supporting it and keeping it going for now.

Sage added that it is often the case with disruptive technologies that borders are formed around existing behaviors, but in this case the fact that it has been observed that this industry will take off means that more can be done to help guide the regulations and necessary infrastructure that will have to come with it.

Grinsted claimed that because the framework has to be sustainable, it is likely that the users will have to fund the development of this, but who exactly is the end user is debatable. This could be categorised as the operator of the aircraft, the National Qualified Entity that will fund it by paying for a license to train, or the customer acquiring the drone service.  

He added that it is promising that this is being pushed forward now, as decisions need to be made sooner rather than later, so that the industry can substantially progress by, say, 2020.

Mike Gadd, business and technical lead for unmanned aircraft systems and cyber programs at the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority, pointed out that commercial aviation and its regulations have been around for a long time, yet “we’re expected to do it in a fortnight.”

Gadd claims that technology is at the forefront of this effort, and the regulatory environment will then support that.

An example of this would be beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight, which is the ultimate aim for most UAS operations, and is likely to only be permitted for operators with proven safety cases that can demonstrate safe operation of this type of operation.

When BVLOS operations come into effect, it will be outside of the pilot, Gadd argues, and technology such as GPS and sense and avoid will have to be relied upon in these instances.
“The challenge is for the industry to make an argument, and our role is to determine if that is reasonable,” he said.

The Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems group collects national aviation authorities together to try and harmonise regulations, which Gadd says is making them common and applicable — along with other joint efforts — across the world. 
 
However, until that happens they vary from country to country, with some countries offering a more lenient regulatory environment in which to operate UAS. These initially tend to be better to do business in, although there may be negative consequences further down the line.
 
“The flip side of that is then it is difficult to do business in the countries with stricter regulations,” Gadd said.

Regulatory body

One suggestion is that there be a separate body established to regulate the operation of UAS, covering flights of some 500 feet and below.

This was proposed by UAS training and consultancy provider Consortiq, which claims that the boom in drone use and the consequent need for regulations to govern it is akin to the introduction of the CAA in 1972.
 
The company argues that there are too many interested parties that want a say on the monitoring of low-level altitudes flight, so establishing a dedicated authority would harmonise the regulations, and ensure they are suited to the needs of UAS operations.
 
This is particularly important to BVLOS flight, the company says, as it will involve operations that are not like any in the manned aviation domain.
 
The industry is generally in agreement that regulations need to protect drone use, not hinder it, although it is not always the case that this is what is happening.

“If something isn’t done, it will be another 100 years trying to work it out like with commercial aviation, and we don’t have that time,” Grinsted said. “It’s about encouraging and protecting the industry to go forward, not hindering it.”

The opinion is very much that the proliferation of UAS in commercial applications is only going to escalate, so the regulations need to be in place to support this growth. This work has to be done now, because the commercial use of drones is already very much commonplace, and it will outgrow the regulatory environment if it is not ready to support it, and the industry will be slowed as a result.

Stakeholders are becoming vocal on their requirements from the regulators, claiming that they will not be held back by tardy rule enforcement, as the technology gains momentum and starts to become even more promising.

While the regulators are listening, and do not want to stifle the industry, there is a differing opinion from them as they continue to claim that technology and safety cases have to be up to scratch in order for more progress to be made. 

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