An (un)certain future for the European civilian drones sector?

By November 10, 2015EU

By Rene van Eijk

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), more commonly known as ‘drones’, have rapidly become a hot topic in the European Institutions. Indeed, just two weeks ago the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the safe use of drones at the initiative of its Transport Committee.

What makes these civil drones so popular? They can be used in a wide array of sectors: from inspecting radio and telecommunications towers to delivery of medicines to (remote) areas that have been hit by natural catastrophes. Additionally, they require less fuel consumption, emit fewer CO2 emissions and make less noise than traditional aircraft.

But before the civilian drone market can really take off there are some concerns that need to be addressed by both the Parliament and Commission. Which main issues are we talking about?

To begin with: privacy. The fact drones are already available on the market and can be bought by anyone has sparked concerns about illegal personal data collection and privacy breaches. These concerns have been recognised by the Parliament in its resolution, where it calls on the Commission to ensure it develops privacy and data protection rules on the use of drones. One way of doing so would be to register and equip drones with an ID chip to ensure traceability and accountability in case of a breach of privacy rules.

As for aviation safety, organisations such as the European Cockpit Association (ECA) have focused specifically on the surge in use of small, recreational drones which have resulted in an increase of reports of near-collisions with commercial aircraft. Drones that are flown in the vicinity of airports could cause devastating crashes and the ECA has therefore stressed that safety must be prioritised over the ability or right to operate a drone. Compounding this problem is the lack of a, or fragmented European regulatory framework on the commercial use of drones.

A number of European countries have adopted their own rules on the safe use of non-military drones, but there are currently no uniform EU rules. Hopeful is the Riga Declaration adopted at the Eastern Partnership summit in March 2015, which called for drone safety rules at the European level, developed by the European Aviation Safety Agency.

What is next?

Transport Commissioner Bulc has recently invited civil aviation companies to fill in an online form on the Commission’s website to garner support for the main principles for the use of drones as stipulated in the Riga Declaration (here).

It is the Commission’s ambition to allow drone operations everywhere in Europe from 2016 onwards. Whether this is realistic, given the pivotal issues that need to be tackled, remains to be seen.