Drone controversy continues in Europe

AvatarBy Thierry Dubois | December 19, 2016

Estimated reading time 3 minutes, 19 seconds.

The debate is heating up in Europe about the use of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS or drones) in the same airspace as helicopters, as proponents see a business opportunity and opponents warn against a safety threat. Meanwhile, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is writing rules expected to be issued in 2018.

Speaking at EASA’s 10th rotorcraft symposium in Cologne, Germany, earlier this month, Jens Rosenow, a publisher of magazines specializing in drones and helicopters, said the manned rotorcraft sector is losing business opportunities to RPAS.

“Our pilots are the best educated ones for drone operations — why don’t we start a business with drones?” Rosenow asked.

Arrigo Avi, a pilot with the emergency preparedness organization of Italy’s Trento province, agreed. His organization is mulling the addition of a large unmanned helicopter to its fleet, for search purposes.

Opponents, including a number of helicopter operators, consider the increasing use of RPAS as an accident waiting to happen. As of early December, German airports had reported 61 drone incursions in 2016. In France, the national lobbying group of the helicopter industry (UFH) has been consistently vocal against the unregulated use of drones.

The topic is so sensitive that, after a presentation on bird strikes, questions from the audience quickly turned to drone strikes. An EASA task force is assessing what to do to avoid RPAS collisions with manned aircraft, Herdrice Hereson, a structure expert at EASA’s rotorcraft department, said.

EASA is not in charge of drones below 150 kilograms (330 pounds) yet, but it hopes to be soon. It published a “prototype” regulation, last August, “to show what we have in mind,” Stefan Ronig, EASA section manager for general aviation and RPAS, said.

Two new categories, “open” and “specific,” would be created for those RPAS lighter than 150 kilogrmas. EASA promises the rules will be “performance-based, risk-based and proportionate.” The boundaries of each category, however, are still to be defined in weight, kinetic energy or other criterion.

Geofencing will certainly be a key standard. An automatic function will thus limit the access of RPAS to some airspaces, such as airport surroundings.

In parallel, electronic identification will enable an authority to recognize an RPAS in flight without direct, physical access to that aircraft. Identification will include registration of the operator and the type of operation it is supposed to conduct.

In the “open” category, limitations would set a maximum height and distance to the operator, who should keep in visual line of sight. Pilot competence would be defined in terms of age and training.

The “specific” category would introduce the concept of light unmanned operator certificate. It would also create the concept of standard scenarios. A low-risk scenario may be self-authorized by the operator. A high-risk scenario may be authorized by the competent authority, based on a risk assessment, Ronig said.

EASA recognizes “the good safety records and the safety culture of model clubs” and promises it will not over-regulate them.

RPAS above 150 kilograms will have to be certified. The related rulemaking work will start in 2017.

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