An overview on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and Related EASA activities

On Air, Issue 11 - EASA and the world of Drones

UAS exist since 1930. They are also known as drones by the general public. The word "drone" refer to the noise of the engine of the first generation of UAS. From these days, as example, the De Havilland Queen Bee derived from the Tiger Moth had already remote controls installed at the place occupied by the back seat.

For quite a long time, UAS were used for military purposes as target aircraft or for reconnaissance and lately for precision attacks. The latter gave them a bad image.

Here some current facts:

  • A very fast civil development in Europe and elsewhere occurred since 2010. This is due to the emergence Multi-copter which has made UAS affordable for professional but also for leisure activities.
  • UAS are characterised by a great variety of external configurations:
    1. You may find rotorcraft, fixed wings, flapping wings, tilt rotor, airship and configurations that are mixing the previous ones.
    2. Their mode of propulsion is also very variable: piston, turbine or electric engines (using batteries, fuel cells or solar cells) are commonly found.
    3. Some are remotely piloted; some use a high degree of automation and in the future may be fully autonomous (e.g. the ability to learn and to decide)
    4. Finally the range of mass and size is very wide: the so called nano-drones have a weight of 10/20 grams or less. The heaviest UAS is the Global Hawk. It has a wing span comparable to the one of a Boeing 737.

UAS are also used for a great variety of operations:

  1. Photography; news industry; movie industry;
  2. Data-collection: this is one of the main functions. A UAS is a data collector;
  3. Precision agriculture;
  4. Infrastructure inspection (Short and long distance);
  5. Very high altitude operation (above FL 600) as surrogate satellites (telecommunications and surveillance).

Many actors are non-classical aviation actors: manufacturers, operators or service providers for small UAS are usually small and medium enterprises (SME). Other may belong to distribution industry such as Amazon or internet companies (Google and Facebook). Amazon is interested in urban distribution. Google and Facebook are more interested in extending the coverage of internet by using satellite surrogates. Large telecommunications companies such as Vodaphone and Nokia are investing in the UAS industry as data-collectors. The classical aviation manufacturers (Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Northrop-Grumman, Dassault) are producing larger UAS mostly for the military market.

The market is in constant evolution: new aircraft; new software and new services are announced very frequently. The services market is the most important one with the highest potential for development.

This combination of new technology; new business models and constant evolution of the UAS industry has led EASA to propose a safety regulatory framework with the following characteristics:

  1. Operation centric: there is no one on board of an UAS so the consequences of an incident are highly dependent of the operational environment (Airspace and overflown area);
  2. Performance and Risk based therefore with a key role for industry standards; performance based (e.g. regulating by objectives) is necessary to avoid freezing the technology. Risk based is necessary is order to not to overburdening the Industry. Ideally the risk could be seen as a continuum but for practical reasons we have created three categories: open, specific and certified;
  3. Relying on aviation regulation and EU product legislation (“CE marking”): as said above many actors are SME and are used for product legislation. Product legislation rely on essential requirements on the design of the product complemented by Industry standards. It also includes a system of market surveillance  which allow to remove products from the market when they are shown to be dangerous. Product legislation stops at putting objects on the market and therefore need to be complemented by aviation regulation for operational rules (e.g. limitations, pilot training).

There are other challenges than safety that need to be addressed to ensure societal acceptance. EASA regulation may contribute to address them but for security and privacy we have no mandate:

  1. Security (UAS has been used to fly over sensitive areas or can become a weapon)
  2. Privacy and data-protection; UAS can fly over walls and ground barrier and therefore pose a new dimension to the privacy.
  3. Environmental issues

The risks and challenges posed by UAS should not hide that they can save lives: sending an UAS to do an inspection of a structure is less risky than sending people. In emergency situations, UAS can deliver medications when roads are blocked.

EASA activities:

UAS are a priority for the EASA because of the significant implications of this industry on our society.

Significant achievements have been made (e.g. prototype regulations; task forces on geo-fencing and collision with aircraft) supported by several workshops. The prototype regulation and the report of the two task forces may be found on the EASA web-site at the page civil drones.

  • Cooperation and communications are fundamental with:
  1. Member States
  2. The UAS community; the model aircraft community, the manned aircraft aviation community
  3. EC especially DG–MOVE and DG-GROW
  4. Other EU Agencies (e.g. EDA (European Defence Agency),  SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU))
  5. International organisations such as ICAO and JARUS
  6. Our bilateral partners (FAA, ANAC and Transport Canada)
  • Certification role is developing:
  1. On-going Certification of a fixed wing (Atlante from Airbus defence); of a rotorcraft (Schiebel) and of a tethered drone (electricity production);
     -Special conditions such as system safety; ground control stations; flight controls have been published. They are based on JARUS or STANAG work
  2. Two recent applications for high altitude aircraft have been made;
  3. The possible validation of a US Unmanned Aircraft is being explored together with the FAA.

EASA is also ready to cooperate with the relevant Authorities for certification of “State” Unmanned aircraft: UAS have quite often a dual use for example civil-military and synergies may be found in this cooperation.

We are also preparing a formal Notice of Proposed Amendment (NPA) for the Open and Specific categories with the support of an expert group. The NPA should be published in March 2017.

But Rulemaking is only one part of our work, it needs to be complimented by research and most important education and safety promotion.

A bit of prospective

Autonomous drones are under development and will be ultimately capable of learning and taking decisions:

  1. They could even fly in swarms
  2. Coexistence of manned actors and robotic actors will be a key issue
  3. Experience from automotive may be useful
  4. Airbus, Uber and others are developing the concept of flying taxis
  5. There will be people on board but they will be passengers
  6. They will share the urban airspace with delivery drones.

This is only the beginning: Technology will enable new means to manage manned and unmanned traffic at low altitudes and in urban areas.