EU: Member States offer political support for domestic drones

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The EU has spent years working with industry to try and pave the way for the widespread use of drones in civilian airspace, offering millions of euros for technological and regulatory research and development. Plans to allow regular flights of domestic drones of all shapes and sizes finally received formal political backing from the Member States last month, during a policy debate organised by the Italian Presidency of the Council of EU.

Three questions

A Council document from September outlined the scope of the meeting. [1] Over the last decade the Commission has taken responsibility for organising European efforts to integrate drones into civil airspace, and the Council noted that: "The objective... is to collect the views of Member States and give overall guidance to the Commission on the most important areas RPAS technology may affect."

The document continues:

"As regards the regulatory framework, it should be discussed how Union level and national rules could be best adapted and combined to reap the full benefits of the emerging phenomenon of unmanned aircraft."

The Presidency set out three questions:

"1. The overall objective... is to accommodate the new technologies of RPAS, and allow for the development of this sector without compromising safety. Ultimately, RPAS could fly as 'normal' air traffic, and be integrated among 'normally piloted' aircraft, in a non-segregated airspace open to general air traffic.

"- Do you agree with these overall objectives?

"2. ...A good balance of rules should be found in order to avoid hampering local developments and heavy regulatory burden.

"- How could a solid partnership between EASA [the European Aviation Safety Agency] and the national authorities best be organised and how could the regulatory burden for both administrations and industry be kept as light as possible?

"3. RPAS operations should not affect the fundamental freedoms of European citizens, who might feel concerned about privacy or security.

"While the main focus of the future regulatory framework might be on safety, should specific rules on data protection or security be developed? Alternatively, should safety legislation merely facilitate the implementation of the existing framework on data and privacy protection or security?"

The policy debate

The debate took place during a meeting of Member States' transport ministers on 8 October. [2] The Latvian minister appeared to make a nod to the fact that it has been more than a decade since the Commission began the technocratic process of funding projects aimed at domestic drone development and regulation: "We have had many discussions on RPAS at technical level, so we should continue the discussions at the political level."

Having been briefed with the questions above, national ministers each had two minutes to make statements. In the event the meeting was more politburo than policy debate:

  • there was broad agreement on the need to develop harmonised European flight rules and technical standards (although differing views were presented on whether the EU should be responsible for drones weighing 150kg or over, as at present, or for drones of all weights);
  • Member States considered that the burden for industry should be kept as light as possible; and
  • the vast majority of Member States consider current the current data protection framework sufficient.

    On this last issue, two states went against the grain and explicitly stated that the existing legal framework was not specific enough. The Maltese delegation said while safety should be the main concern, there is a need for specific rules to address privacy and security issues.This should be addressed in the new General Data Protection Regulation. The Portuguese minister said there is a need for a regulatory framework which would involve specific rules. Spain, meanwhile, said that future widespread uses such as video surveillance should lead to the development of specific rules.

    How exactly harmonised EU rules on flight and safety are to be developed may be the subject of further wrangling. Belgium, for example, considers that "we should do away with the artificial limit of 150kg" and give EASA responsibility for drones of all sizes. This view was not shared by other delegations, who appear to hold a preference for the current system of national and EU regulation.

    However, Belgium retains a preference for some national control: "We believe that the national authority is in the best position to take a decision" to impose local operational conditions - "this is the only way to ensure that drones are integrated in a non-segregated airspace at a local level."

    Seeking solutions

    The Czech delegation noted that:

    "Many Member States including the Czech Republic have already been elaborating in parallel national rules... The European Commission and EASA... and Member States... [must together] search for a balanced solution in regulating RPAS at the national level and Union level that will not create excessive burdens for the operators nor the relevant bodies."

    To solve the issue of differing national and EU regulations, Lithuania suggested the creation of a new working group:

    "It would be very useful to set up a working party from the representatives of the Commission, EASA and national aviation administration so that this group can address legal and procedural harmonisation at the EU level. This working party could assess the existing situation and best practices of EU and third countries."

    Bulgaria shared this view, commenting that: "there should be a common working group of the EASA and the stakeholders to prepare a regulatory framework for RPAS flight." Were such a working group to be set up, it would presumably become another subgroup of the European RPAS Steering Group, set up by the Commission in 2012 behind closed doors.

    The Danish delegation called for swifter EU action with a comparative argument:

    "There are actually more technical requirements for a coffee machine then there are for civil drones, which I think tells us quite clearly how useful it is to have this on the agenda. It is important that we do get the regulation, and I'd encourage the Commission to move this forward rapidly."

    This lack of technical standards has come about despite the Commission pouring millions of euros into drone research and development over the last ten years - but no Member States questioned whether the Commission's work so far had been effective or represented money well spent. The UK, however, did comment that the Commission's current plan - for full integration of drones in civil airspace by 2028 - is highly ambitious given the need for further research and development on enabling technologies.

    Industrial standards

    A remark from the German minister alluded to the tension that exists between civil liberties and the ongoing demand for jobs and growth in an area that is, to a significant degree, based on the manufacture and sale of surveillance systems: "We need to reconcile the interests of our industry and the interests of our citizens." Austria made a similar point: "We have the firms on the one hand, industry, but also we have our citizens' interests."

    How will these differing interests be reconciled? It remains to be seen, but the overall goal of significantly expanding the domestic drone market is primarily intended to benefit European industry, which already has a significant role in the Commission's European RPAS Steering Group. Representatives of citizens' interests - for example the European Data Protection Supervisor and MEPs - have so far been excluded from discussions on the issue.

    The Finnish minister noted the possibility for "jobs and growth", while the UK was insistent that there should not be "additional barriers to growth in this sector." The Swedish government considers that the compliance of drones with the security, privacy and environmental standards of manned aircraft "important, not least for enabling good business opportunities for the European industry."

    Siim Kallas, until-recently European Commissioner for Transport, argued that: "The EU must seize the window of opportunity to become a global player in this field,and should not be an obstacle in the developing of this business. [We have] competitors all around the world."

    Droning on

    More political support for domestic drones is forthcoming. Member States' delegations in the Council's Space Working Party are currently preparing a set of Conclusions on 'Underpinning the European space renaissance: orientations and future challenges', which are due to be put before the Competitiveness Council on the 4 and 5 December.

    A draft, prepared at the end of September, contains the following statement:

    "[The Council] NOTES that the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) development represents a potential opportunity to foster job creation and a source for innovation, technological independence and economic growth INVITES to pursue the progressive integration of Space and Aerospace services and technologies to the use of RPAS in a safe and sustainable manner within civilian airspace." [3]

    Further reading

  • Ben Hayes, Chris Jones and Eric Töpfer, 'Eurodrones, Inc.',Statewatch/Transnational Institute, February 2014
  • 'Commission proposes military research programme', Statewatch News Online, August 2014
  • 'Frontex presses on with aerial surveillance projects', Statewatch News Online, August 2014
  • 'Police forces get ready for multi-billion euro policing and security funds', Statewatch News Online, June 2014

    [1] General Secretariat, 'Policy debate', 13235/1/14 REV 1, 30 September 2014
    [2] The meeting can be viewed online on the Council website.
    [3] Presidency, 'Draft Council conclusions "Underpinning the European space renaissance: orientations and future challenges"', 13256/14, 24 September 2014

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