Aviation rule-makers on both sides of the Atlantic have been discussing the integration of UAVs into national and international airspace for some time, but a real push is now being made to accelerate the process to avoid the technology out-growing the regulatory framework.

At present, a UAV can typically operate within line of sight of an operator taking into account certain boundaries – but commercialisation and exploitation of unmanned technology will require a broader operating scope to allow the aircraft to operate beyond line of sight.

While a “harmonised” approach to UAV integration has been touted by regulators including the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the European Commission and individual national regulators, many have recently accepted that a blanket ruling on unmanned systems is not the right approach.

It seems that regulators are finally starting to listen to calls for a proportionate approach to the integration of UAVs into civil airspace.

EASA released a proposed ruling in March, which suggested that the integration of UAVs be proportionate to the risk each poses. This ruling is intended to stimulate the market while also ensuring safe integration with manned aircraft.

The proposed policy document says that progress must be balanced against public concern over UAV use in open airspace, while laws should be “an enabler and not an impediment”.

In order to do this, EASA suggests that UAV operations should be divided into three categories that are proportionate to the risk and the operations that each will undertake, taking into consideration the wide variety of types and operations of UAVs now available. The three categories are: open, specific and certificated.

The open category would not require authorisation from an aviation authority, but would be need to stay within defined boundaries. Specific operations would require a risk assessment that would result in an Operations Authorisation being granted to allow flight within certain limitations appropriate for the operations.

Certificated operations would be deemed to be those with the highest level of risk attached, “akin to normal manned aviation”. This category would therefore require multiple levels of certification, covering both the specifics of UAV operations and certain elements of regular manned flight.

Phantom UAV - Rex

Rex Features

Furthermore, the new regulatory framework would “render obsolete" EASA's present upper 150kg (330lb) limit, which divides those UAVs able to be regulated at national level from those requiring pan-European oversight.

EASA calls its planning “progressive”. A stakeholders’ consultation on a concrete regulatory proposal for the open category will be published in June, while a draft regulatory framework is to be presented to the European Commission by the end of 2015. This will be followed by a final regulatory proposal for the open category to be presented to the EC in December this year.

The agency admits that it has been driven to modernise its practices as a result of the challenge to incorporate UAVs into civil airspace, and has become more flexible in response to new technology.

Eric Sivel, EASA’s innovation and research manager, told the AUVSI Unmanned Systems Europe conference in Brussels in March that while 11 documents are required for a manned commercial flight to be permitted, it may be nonsensical for UAV pilots to have some of these documents – for example medical certificates.

“Making RPAS safe using the current model is going to cause an imbalance, so we are forced to change the way we work,” Sivel says. “This is not a small change, it’s a fundamental overhaul. There are prescriptive rules in aviation – you say ‘do it’.”

He adds that UAVs “pose challenges and questions that we as aviators had never asked ourselves”, and a “change in cultures” is becoming apparent.

Airspace integration is also technology-dependent, and unmanned aircraft must have a certain level of redundancy to be able to avoid obstacles that they may hit or may hit them, and in some cases mayneed to be integrated into existing manned air traffic control structures.

The Commission’s Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) effort aims to modernise and harmonise UAV operations, and an upcoming UAV element in its new “2020” strategy will facilitate this further.

SESAR 2020 is due to begin by the end of 2015 and carry on until around 2024, and UAVs will be considered in the first phase. However, in order to incorporate the equivalent of both manned visual flight rules (VFR) and instrument flight rules (IFR), more money is needed.

“What we propose is to fully integrate RPAS into the aviation system, but we want – and I am convinced that the EC is aware that we need to have the full package – IFR and VFR. The [total] cost of this is €150 million,” Denis Koehl, senior advisor for military affairs on the programme, told the AUVSI conference.

Koehl says that the current available budget is near €40 million, which would only allow for a token amount of work to be carried out, although most concerned parties want “the full package”.

In America, both regulators and regulations lag behind what is happening across the Atlantic. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) didn’t release proposed regulations governing small UAVs until February. These would permit commercial flights in most US airspace at up to 500ft in daylight, as long as the UAV remains within eyesight of an observer or an operator who has passed an aeronautical knowledge test.

The FAA then announced in March that it had established an interim policy to speed up the issuing of airspace authorisations for specific commercial UAVs that qualify under Section 333 of the FAA’s Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. This clause allows exemptions from full certification regulations to be granted for UAV operations.

This means the FAA will grant a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to any UAV operator with a Section 333 exemption for flights at or below 200ft using an aircraft weighing less than 55lb, in daylight, within line of sight and at certain distances away from airports and heliports.

This “blanket” COA for operations below 200ft differs from previous rules mandating that an operator had to apply for and receive a COA for specific areas of operations. The old process could take up to 60 days to run its course, so the FAA anticipates the new rule will speed up the process.

However, the small UAV proposal would ban the operation of small UAVs beyond visual range of the operator and over the heads of people – negating attempts by companies such as Amazon and Google to launch drone delivery services in urban areas.

Google has become an unlikely participant in the integration process, having unveiled plans to produce a “really low-cost” automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) transceiver.

Manned aircraft in controlled airspace transmit their whereabouts to air traffic control using onboard transponders, but carrying such equipment as it currently exists on a small UAV is not viable.

L-3 Aviation and FreeFlight had both revealed plans to launch small ADS-B transceivers that cost less than $2,000 prior to Google’s announcement, but the tech giant claims that it can drive the price lower within a “few years”.

“We have to answer the question: what does the market find palatable in order to really transform? And that’s where we’re going,” Dave Vos, head of Google’s Project Wing told an ICAO RPAS conference in Montreal in March. “Think about it: would you spend $2,000? We have to make it happen.”

Project Wing previously revealed plans to develop a UAV delivery service, and airspace integration is essential to this aim.

Google Project Wing


Its delivery drones – as they have inevitably be christened by the mainstream press – would need to operate in airspace below 500ft, a portion of the sky currently used by tens of thousands of general aviation aircraft, and their the owners have been been reluctant to spend money to equip their aircraft with an ADS-B Out system. However, the FAA mandates that by 2020 all aircraft carry must be fitted with an ADS-B Out system if they are to be flown in controlled airspace, and this will help to make the technology smaller and cheaper.

Amazon has also been granted permission to test the UAV prototype that it hopes to use to carry out parcel deliveries in the future, but it has had problems with regulators over the time it took to grant the experimental airworthiness certification. By the time permission was granted, the first iteration of Amazon's UAV had been rendered “obsolete” thanks to advances in technology that had been incorporated into a new prototype.

The advanced model subsequently gained authorisation, but the process highlights the sluggish regulatory environment that surrounds UAV use. It seems that without a concerted effort, the technology will continue to move faster than the rules can be developed.

Source: Flight Daily News