Putting the ‘fund’ in fundamental safety
While sitting down in a room full of suited bureaucrats and hammering out best-practices is certainly one way the EU aims to get to grips with the still nascent drone space, another, potentially more productive method suggested is for Europe to throw wads of euros at the burgeoning space to ensure any current gaps in the technology are closed safely and satisfactorily.
Indeed, a 2014 report by Statewatch and TNI claims “at least 315 million Euros of EU research funding directed at drone-based projects; of this almost 120 million Euros has gone towards major security research projects”.
The report, referenced in a recent research paper, “Privacy and Data Protection Implications of the Civil Use of Drones” – for the committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs –highlights both the opportunities and challenges the still nascent drone industry faces, along with recommendations on how best EU policy should handle them.
The long and short of it is that the EU realizes drones are something of a double edged sword.
On the one hand, they have incredible potential for creating new jobs, revitalizing old industries, modernizing spheres like agriculture, providing a boon to both Small/Medium Businesses (SMEs), and proving invaluable in emergency situations where human intervention is either impossible or difficult.
On the other, owing to an absence of both regulation and industry wide safety regulations, coupled with some still rather large gaps in the technology, the risks – both to people’s privacy and their actual person – are not to be trifled with.
Europeans have been keeping a wary eye on reports from across the pond, namely from the US military and America’s Federal Aviation Administration; the stats are sobering.
In terms of accident data, US Army officials reported in June 2013 that drones had crashed at 10 times the rate of manned Army aircraft over the previous nine months.
The FAA registered 15 cases in 2013 and 2014 of drones flying close to airports or passenger aircraft, putting civil aviation aircraft and passengers in serious danger: in some cases pilots reported near-collisions.
Mid-air encounters seem disturbingly all too common, with pilots and air-traffic controllers recording 50 close calls or improper flight operations involving drones over the past decade. The FAA has also recorded 23 accidents and 236 unsafe incidents since November 2009 involving civilian drones flown with the FAA’s permission and under its scrutiny.
Hoping to learn from America’s experience, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is currently helping to develop a baseline of safety rules, which might, the paper notes, be ready by the end of 2015 and ready for some sort of implementation by 2016.
These, apparently will not only include a basic regulatory framework but also suggestions on which enabling technologies to foster to make the skies a safer proposition for everyone and everything in them.
While this sounds like a lot of red tape, the paper’s authors posit that, rather than thwart drone progress, the rules aim to support market development and the competitiveness of the European RPAS industry in general.
EASA’s main concerns center on the fact that not all the technologies required for safe drone use are mature yet.
The main gaps, as EASA sees them, are to be found in Air Traffic Management and airspace environments; verification and validation; data communication links and spectrum issues; detect and avoid systems and operational procedures; security issues; operational contingency procedures and systems; surface operations including take-off and landing. That’s where the EU is planning on putting its funding.
This should provide a financial boon to companies doing research and development on drone Detect and Avoid technologies (to avoid mid-air collisions), security of the drone communication link between the pilot and the drone to make hacking, jamming and spoofing harder ,and drone geo-fencing to deny them access to certain no-fly areas such as airports, critical infrastructure, embassies, cities, monuments, military bases or even private property.
Attention and investment will also likely be directed at security protection against physical, electronic or cyber-attacks, not to mention human factor issues such as piloting, which may eventually require people to get training and proper licenses (as they do for driving cars).
That’s all in addition to tackling currently common safety issues like mechanical or electrical defects, weather hazards like lightning, high winds or ice, and a limited ability to detect and avoid troubles using just basic cameras and sensors.
Aiming to fill the gaps is one thing, but Europe’s policy makers are also realizing that until they get there, they will also have to put some effort into developing technologies that can neutralize or take down a drone if necessary, , such as in the case of illegal, unlawful, unsafe or criminal activities, including terrorist attacks.
These technologies don’t really exist yet, or, if they do, they’re not exactly legally sanctioned, safe or well suited to dealing with rogue drones, so they’ll have to be developed too. Sounds like a good place for drone startups to seek out some seed funding.
At FTI, as one of the few global consultancies with deep roots in policy, regulation, and technology, our team, both in Europe and the United Space, routinely analyzes and evaluates conversation and events in the drone space. Indeed, our integrated US/EU tech/regulation team believes there are many unexplored opportunities for drone-related businesses, from managing risks, to implementation of open standards, to building a strong communication infrastructure to deal not only with operational risk but issues like privacy and security.
Our team in Brussels is plugged in to all major policy movement, while our team here in San Francisco and Washington DC keeps its finger firmly on the FAA’s pulse.
For more information about drones, and FTI’s views on the subject, keep an eye on our blog, especially our skytek series.