Drones, or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), as they are described in this report, are no longer used solely by the military. In the UK alone, there are now hundreds of companies, mainly SMEs, using RPAS to provide a range of services, including photography, land surveying, building inspection and crop analysis. RPAS will revolutionise what the aviation industry can achieve and how it is regulated. Europe must act now in order to reap the future benefits of this exciting new technology.
This report evaluates the plans set out by the European Commission in a Communication in April 2014 to make Europe a global leader in the RPAS industry.
We strongly support the Commission's aims to create an internal market in the EU for the commercial use of RPAS. The Commission is well placed to develop a set of RPAS safety rules for an internal market by leveraging the role of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and, by extension, the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS). To avoid stifling the existing RPAS industry, which consists primarily of companies using small RPAS weighing less than 20kg, we recommend that safety rules be developed and applied in proportion to the risk that RPAS flights present. Member States must retain a degree of flexibility in regulating small RPAS to respond to local markets and support growth in the industry.
The RPAS industry faces many technological challenges, such as the need for RPAS to 'detect and avoid' obstacles on the ground and in the air. We welcome the Commission's plans to incorporate RPAS into existing aviation research programmes, such as the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research Joint Undertaking (SESAR JU) and Horizon 2020. However, greater attention must be given to the technological needs of small RPAS, the fastest growing sector within the industry.
EU data protection legislation must remain technology neutral if it is to be flexible enough to apply to the unique characteristics of RPAS. Each Member State's data protection agency should create and share guidance for RPAS pilots on this issue. Concerns regarding the use of RPAS by journalists and for surveillance by state authorities should form part of a public debate about acceptable uses for RPAS.
Commercial RPAS pilots have a clear obligation to purchase third party liability insurance, but the minimum amount of insurance required would, we conclude, be too low to cover the cost of compensation for a serious accident. We also believe that the way in which this amount is determined, based only on the aircraft's weight, does not distinguish between the risks posed by large and small RPAS. The Commission should review this.
Leisure users of RPAS, that is to say users who are not regulated as commercial RPAS pilots or as members of a model plane flying club, have already purchased large numbers of small RPAS. Misuse of RPAS by leisure users could undermine public acceptance of this technology, potentially jeopardising the development of a commercial RPAS market. In the short term, we support the UK Government's plans to raise awareness of safety hazards associated with RPAS through the media and information leaflets at the point of sale. We endorse plans for a public consultation to gauge support for the increased civilian use of RPAS. In the long term, the police should have a greater role in enforcing existing legislation. Although our recommendations on this issue are UK-focused, similar challenges are present in other EU Member States. Sharing best practice is key to reinforcing the growth of an internal market for commercial RPAS.
In the absence of a global system which could track all RPAS (including small RPAS flying below 500ft), we were impressed by industry suggestions for the creation of an online database through which commercial operators could log their flight plans and data protection policies.
We urge industry, the Government and the Commission to cooperate with the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), in the USA, which is currently researching a possible tracking system. We also recommend that they consider developing a system for sophisticated small RPAS which would not only manage flight plans and coordinate airspace, but would enable identification of each RPAS and its pilot. This will be essential to enforce existing and future laws governing RPAS use.