Droning on: can Europe really be a global leader in drone policy?

Agnès Leroux -  Acumen Account Director and our resident expert on drones - gives her take on this week’s High Level Drone Conference in Helsinki and the future of drone policy in Europe. 

Good things come in threes! After Riga in 2015 and Warsaw last year, the European drone community met in Helsinki this week for its third High Level Conference on Drones. The meeting took stock of the progress to date, and looked into the future - calling for a clear regulatory framework at EU level.

First baby steps

But first, let’s take a step back. EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc has given a strong political push to the structuring of the EU drone sector. The revision of the European Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA) mandate was a clear opportunity to include drones, and shift the focus from military applications (through the European Defence Agency and its MALE project for instance) to the use of civil drones in Europe. Currently in the trilogue stage of negotiations, the new EASA mandate is deemed to be adopted under the Estonian Presidency, entering into force in early 2018.

The Commission’s proposal is a balancing act between empowering EASA to regulate drones and preserving subsidiarity. As a result, it does not fully respond to calls to create a harmonised single market for drones, with industry repeatedly underlining the risk of market fragmentation.

Reaching new heights

EU drone policy is taking shape at a swift pace –fast enough even to surprise some seasoned professionals in Brussels. Informal expert groups have been set up tackling various issues, culminating in the establishment of the Commission’s Expert Group on Drones earlier this year. New work streams keep appearing, slowly breaking the silos between different institutions and stakeholders.

The big focus of 2017 in Europe, but also at global level, has been the U-Space – or Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) for our non-EU partners. The Commission, under the lead of SESAR-JU, released a so-called “Blueprint” in June. And in September, ICAO organised “Drone Enable”, a two-day symposium on the future of UTM, from conception to implementation. An international panel is currently reviewing projects from all around the world, with major companies such as Google X, Facebook, Amazon in the race.

In parallel, the industry is waiting for the publication of a call for demonstrators from SESAR, rumoured to be launched in January 2018. Through this, Commissioner Bulc will look to showcase the concrete progress that has been made in EU drone policy, and particularly U-Space, under her mandate.

Will that be enough?

The latest development is the Helsinki Declaration, adopted this week on November 22nd. The Declaration recognises that airspace access will be a cornerstone of future developments, as “fair access to all airspace users” must be guaranteed. It also calls for “simple and clear” EU rules. Yet this very same call has already been made in the previous Riga and Warsaw declarations - perhaps a sign that the rules currently on the table are neither clear nor simple enough.

What were the different stakeholders’ reactions? During their presentation, the Drone Manufacturers Alliance Europe declared that the EU drone community is currently “dealing with a regulatory gap”, rather than a technological one. Here again, the fast-moving pace of technologies will force regulators to innovate in how to approach policy. Aviation stakeholders, such as Boeing or Airbus, stressed that rule-making was also required on autonomous drones and flying taxis: the U-Space should not be the only focus of the EU drone policy.