The Brussels view: much buzz about drones as Parliament works towards regulatory position

By April 3, 2015EU

By Owen Bennett

In popular perception, drones are synonymous with the murky new world of modern warfare. But when applied to more constructive ends so-called “civil drones” have real innovation potential, with some industry figures comparing their rise to that of the Internet in the 1990s. As our 2014 analysis highlighted, much activity is underway in the EU Institutions and Member States to bring some regulatory control to the fledging sector. With a European Parliament report on drone regulation set to be published in June, we outline the latest policy intelligence.

Drones are already used in some European countries to undertake tasks that are of significant danger and cost for humans. They are particularly effective for infrastructure and crop inspection, disaster relief, and service provision – see Amazon’s much hyped drone delivery proposal of last year. Indeed, some studies have suggested that drones could add EUR 10 billion to the European Economy in the next 10 years, and add over 150,000 jobs by 2050. With the Juncker Commission sticking closely to its “jobs + growth” mantra, these kind of numbers are turning heads in the Berlaymont.

While ground-controlled drones, or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) as they are officially known as, are legal in EU airspace, there remains no harmonised regulatory framework that guarantees mutual recognition of drone licences across Member States. More worryingly, there is no clear framework of legal safeguards to ensure safety, security, and data protection for drone operators and citizens.

It is in this context that the European Commission published a memo in April 2014 outlining its regulatory agenda for the RPAS sector. Committing itself to developing a “framework for the safe integration of RPAS into civil airspace by 2016”, the Commission’s memo outlined policymakers’ ambitions across five key targets:

  1. Strict EU wide rules on safety
  2. Protect citizens’ fundamental rights
  3. Tough controls to ensure security
  4. Guarantee third party liability and insurance
  5. Support market development and European industries.

Over the past year Commission officials have been teasing over the finer details of a proposed legislative text on drone regulation. At the same time the Parliament’s Transport Committee has been crafting an own-initiative report on drones which will undoubtedly feed into the Commission’s proposal. It has just been announced that the Parliament report, overseen by MEP Jacqueline Foster (UK, ECR) will be presented in committee on the 15th/16th June. This initial draft will give a key insight into the Parliament’s thinking on the matter and give a strong indication of what the ultimate EU legislative action on drone regulation will look like.

Under the current timeframe, the Parliament should finalise its drone position by October of this year, after which the Commission is likely to publish its draft proposal for regulation. With much hype surrounding the economic and innovative potential of civil drones, the Parliament Transport committee’s June report will be greeted with significant expectation by a variety of stakeholders.

For more insight and analysis of ongoing developments regarding RPAS regulation, please contact the Political intelligence Brussels office.