Imagine a future scenario where dozens of aerial drones buzz past each day, like swarms of flies, delivering parcels, reacting to emergencies and monitoring traffic conditions. This is the potential prospect being debated by MEPs.
The European Parliament’s transport and tourism committee voted last week to update civil aviation regulations covering safety and privacy issues related to drones.
“EU aviation safety standards are already high. Even so, the growing use of drones and threats from terrorism and cyber-attacks require new rules to ensure aviation safety and security,” said Marian-Jean Marinescu, a Romanian member of the European Parliament (MEP).
“At the same time, these rules should be performance and risk based — ultralight or business aviation should not have to meet the same requirements.”
With drones — or remotely piloted aircraft systems — becoming increasingly accessible and cheap, pilots have sought clarity on “geofencing” around airports and helicopter flight paths. The airspace between high-altitude jets and ground-based transitory populations is no longer the preserve of the birds and bees.
Jacqueline Foster, who leads the committee, said: “What we have seen over the last 15 years, from a commercial point of view, is a huge growth in this industry. We are looking at civil drones being used to check crops in fields. We’re looking at them to look at humanitarian disasters. There may be forest fires. They check railway lines. The film industry. …We need to now take a look at how we can manage this in a more sensible, non-prescriptive way”.
EU aviation safety standards are already high. Even so, the growing use of drones and threats from terrorism and cyber-attacks require new rules to ensure aviation safety and security
Recreational users who breach privacy laws may face counter-measures from individuals on the ground. As with conventional disputes, the advice is to inform the police.
But downed aircraft that land within a private residence or garden would muddy the waters for law enforcement agencies and add another tier of administration for police forces.
Indeed, science fiction writers have long surmised that drones will become the longer arm of the law, as surveillance tools or deployable weapons.
The current focus of MEPs is on the commercial and creative ramifications of the technology.
“Unmanned aircraft have great potential for the future. Many applications are already providing various services, with better quality and results. At the same time, without proper discipline, these could give rise to serious safety and security problems.
“Registration and identification are basic requirements. Unmanned aircraft with a take-off mass higher than 250 grammes and all certified ones should be registered,” said Mr Marinescu.
The EU Commission will be asked to define safety rules for drone flights and design, such as conditions in which additional equipment is required to limit altitude or access to critical zones, for example power plants or airports.
Under the draft rules, the European Aviation Safety Agency will be empowered to issue directives and recommendations on perceived risks from unlawful acts or flight paths that cross national borders.
Recent high profile “hacks” of devices connected to the “internet of things”, coupled with advances in artificial intelligence, mean that the sky is the limit for speculation on a future world populated by civilian, and possibly military, drones.
A revised common aviation framework may even be acceptable to Brexiters.
By James Fitzgerald