Drone regulations must have public confidence to secure industry’s future

Posted on 24th September 2015

Staff member Mike Laughton has been evaluating proposed European framework for regulating civilian drones, in response to a consultation released by the European Aviation Safety Agency. The consultation responses are due 25 September, and can be found here: https://www.easa.europa.eu/unmanned-aircraft-systems-uas-and-remotely-piloted-aircraft-systems-rpas

Fairly or unfairly to drone manufacturers and operators, people will not look favourably on drones becoming a part of civilian life if they become a nuisance.  Already, media coverage is becoming negative of drones as they are put to nefarious ends.  In this, drones are similar to most new technologies, arousing curiosity and suspicion in turn – but the industry must ensure the former outweighs the latter. The industry must actively work with markets developing regulations to ensure that the public are talking about how we exploit the benefits of drones, rather than whether we prevent their sale.

The European Union, with nearly half of the world’s operators and manufacturers, is the one to watch at the moment.  Through the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), it has released a consultation on a series of proposals to regulate the civilian drone industry at the European, rather than member-state, level.

The proposals would create a series of licence types based on risk.  EASA proposes three categories of authorisation: open, specific, and certified.  ‘Open’ authorisations would be granted to those lowest-risk operations, usually involving the smallest drones in sparsely populated areas and posing little risk to other aircraft, people or property.  ‘Specific’ authorisations would be granted to slightly riskier operations, involving higher-capability or heavier drones, with identified risks to be mitigated by the operator.  Finally, the ‘certified’ authorisation would be analogous to certifications given to manned aircraft, and would be reserved for the largest of drones, involved in complex operations, over populated areas and posing risks to other aircraft.

Fortunately, in many existing use cases, the ‘open’ authorisation, requiring no interaction with the authorities at all, will be all businesses ever need to make the most of drone technology.  The ‘specific’ authorisation category would be more cumbersome, though ‘off-the-shelf’ authorisations for relatively routine operations are advocated.  Initially, however, it appears that novel drone applications will face some difficulty.  Sophisticated operations will certainly be difficult to license, which would make life difficult for fleets of urban delivery drones.  Nevertheless, should this welcoming attitude prevail, the industry will have the room it needs to grow, provided public attitudes towards drones remains relatively benign.

We must therefore look to the specifics to see if these regulations can assure Europeans that the industry and regulators can minimise drone misuse.  With this confidence, European authorities can maintain this relaxed attitude; without it, pressure to ‘crack down’ will grow and the appetite for a liberal regime diminish.  Other regulators will look to the European experience as they develop their own regimes, so this test case must be successful for this relaxed approach to spread around the world.  So, how do the proposals perform on this crucial test?

The answer for the EASA largely lies in ‘no-drone zones’ (proposal 7), which are also the biggest risk from this point of view.  Having multiple definitions of these zones in each member state, or leaving national authorities to select them arbitrarily, will likely confuse the public, operators, and local authorities alike, resulting inevitably in accidental violations, spurious enforcement and complaints that the regulations are not fit for purpose.  Moreover, such room for manoeuvre for national authorities could, if abused, undermine the pan-European nature of the framework.

EASA’s proposal to mitigate this by developing a ‘geo-fencing’ software standard, to prevent drones from accidentally flying over such zones, goes some way toward clearing this up.  Likewise, the industry should help EASA in its suggestion that no-drone zones could be presented through smartphones.  This would be an important reference point for the public, and give a sense of control.  However, without clear guidance or rule of thumb on what should be considered no-drone zones, the still-large population of those without smartphones will be excluded.

A counter-intuitive approach to regulation in this case is appropriate: advocate more of it, advocate its clearest possible communication, and advocate robust enforcement.  Doing so in advance secures the favourable attitude towards the civilian drone industry evident in European policy-making, and this is precious capital to be preserved, even at the cost of regulation that may be a little too tight for some operators in the short term.

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