The broadening scope for operation of drones: from search and rescue operations after natural disasters to the monitoring and repair of machinery and buildings, to use in agriculture, art and media has forced the EU to advance the regulation of the flourishing industry.

In its Prototype Regulation issued last month, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) foresees significant growth of the drone sector in the next years. By 2020, quadcopters and fixed wing drones’ compound annual growth rate is estimated to rise respectively by +31,42% and +19,95% in Europe.

EASA predicts the EU will be the second biggest market for drones in 2020. However, the European Union is still working to have a common legislative framework in which drones can operate safely, for the benefit of all the stakeholders, which include private and commercial consumers and hobbyists, manufacturers, software developers, and even governments.

Right now the Parliament is reviewing the EASA regulation on general aviation issues, including drones, and by the end of 2018 the EU institutions are expected to adopt a final regulation on Unmanned Aircraft operation. Given the economic potential of the drone market and the possible issues regarding safety, privacy, data protection, the EU needs a clear legislation to face the future challenges that drones pose.

Stakeholders discussed all of these issues last week at an event in the European Parliament on safe and innovative drone applications.

Stakeholders in the drone industry, legislators and civil society took the opportunity to share their opinion and concerns on the EASA Prototype Regulation on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, ahead of the final vote of EP’s Transport Committee on the report drafted by European Parliament Member Marian Jean Marinescu.

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Marinescu was adamant that the EU needs to address concerns of safety and security, and that the EASA prototype rules did not go far enough in this respect. After a candid exchange with representatives of EASA and the European Commission, Marinescu was conciliatory: “There are still things that we need to look into. Our job as legislator should be to provide flexibility and safety. We have to find a balance taking into account all aspects … We will be able to find it since we are driven by the same interests and expectations” concluded Marinescu.

Gabriele Preuss, the shadow rapporteur for the S&D Group in the European Parliament addressed the different levels that society viewed this issue on: “A recent opinion poll in Germany shows that people have mixed feeling about them: high approval for safety operations like search and rescue, but mixed feelings regarding potential security issues and safety threats,” Preuss commented. “Thus, we have to approach the topic from all the possible perspectives, including politics, legislators, industry and citizens ones and we are confident that the Prototype Regulations draft by EASA takes all the possible dimension into account”.

Luc Tytgat, Director for Strategy and Safety Management for EASA, called for an inclusive approach. “We need a regulation that is a toolbox for industries, various members states and foreigners manufacturers, which is on one hand flexible but at the same time safe for users”.  The safety and innovations aspects of drones in civil society were the most important issues on the table. “We are confronted with a huge challenge in terms of safety because of the potentially vast use of civil drones” said Filip Cornelis, Director of Aviation and International Affairs at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Mobility and Transport.

“We need to continue to make drones safer and smarter, through technology advances in collision avoidance and connectivity and, in the longer term, to enable things like multiple drones per pilot and safe flight beyond line of sight.” said Kirsty Macdonald, Senior Director of Government and Policy EMEA at Intel Corporation. “To realise the full potential of drone technology, we need to build a collaborative ecosystem and welcome the consultative approach adopted by EASA and the EU Institutions. We will be working with industry partners to provide feedback to the development of EU rules” she explained. In an op-ed in New Europe last week, Macdonald addressed the societal and commercial benefits that the drone industry can have in Europe.

In the first ever drone flight in the European Parliament, Intel showcased two drones. The first showcased redundancy as a safety solution, while the second was a demonstration of collision avoidance technology brought about by Intel’s Realsense computer vision system and avoid software. RealSense algorithms turn the imagery collected by the 3 drone cameras into data that is useful for avoiding hazards, but can discard much of the raw image data that could identify nearby people. In the unrehearsed demonstration, the two members of the European Parliament hosting the event engaged in a game of drone-pong by moving towards the drone to cause it to alter its course in order to avoid a collision, and go back and forth between them.

“Drones were used during the operations after the recent earthquake in Amatrice, Italy, along with firefighter and personnel” explained Daniel Gurdan, Co-founder of Ascending Technologies, a German company recently acquired by Intel.

The panel focused on the two major challenges linked with drone security encountered when creating the draft rules: the definition of a drone and its operational capabilities.

The first topic looked at the definition of a drone: “It could be anything, as small as a finger tip or as big as a plane. And it could fly at the speed of a jet or only slowly float. Thus safety rules need to be extended to cover a far wider risk span – from drone size and operation – and from virtually no risk to an higher one” explained Cornelis.

Drones not only open piloting activities to a wider public, but also raise the issue of enforcement of the rules. Are the aviation authorities able to cope with thousands of drones and pilots? In order to answer to these question and propose a large framework able to encompass all these instances, EASA introduced the Operation Centric Approach (OCA) which calculated the possible risk in relation to the drone’s type of operation. This is done across three different categories (open, specific, certified), regardless their mass (from a few grams to hundreds of kilos).

The OCA is the essence of the Prototype Rule put forward by EASA. “A Prototype Rule is an unusual procedure but given the need of an agile framework regulation that could be shared among all the countries in the future we had to tailor our efforts” explained Cornelis.

The combination and coordination of actions as registration, identification and air traffic management can produce a safe environment for drones. The possibilities of creating effective geo-fencing capacity is considered key; and industry looks at collision avoidance, an evolving technology, as an important safety feature.

The panel also agreed on the importance of future proofing the legislation. With the economical potential being huge, not only regarding the sheer production of drones but their implementation in delivery of services or production of data, the EU stands to gain both in terms of jobs and in terms of financial benefit. Industry representatives echoed these sentiments, which one company saying that a stable, forward looking legislative environment was critical.