03 Jun 2015   |   News

Europe’s pilots call for strict curbs on flying drones

The Commission wants Europe to be “global leader in this emerging technology” but pilots say European airspace needs better safety first

Europe’s airspace lacks the safeguards needed to cope with a high influx of drones, according to the European Cockpit Association (ECA), which says there should be a certification system covering machines of all sizes, whether in use by hobbyists or companies.

“We need to make sure we safely integrate [them],” says Paul Reuter, pilot and technical director at ECA, which represents 38,000 pilots.

Although there are no official figures, the ECA claims there have been around 190 near-misses involving drones and passenger planes already in Europe.

The ECA is at odds with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which is currently drafting EU-wide legislation. The Agency is recommending drones weighing less than 500 grammes, which are often referred to as hobbyist drones, should be classified as low-risk and exempt from industry standards. Such drones must be flown within the line of sight, not exceeding an altitude of 150 metres, and kept away from areas such as airports or nuclear installations.

Bigger drones should be integrated into the existing aviation system in a safe and proportionate manner, the EASA says. This integration should foster an innovative and competitive European drone industry, creating jobs and growth.

John Horne, ECA vice president says it is a misconception that small drones are harmless ‘toys’ flying at low level. He gives the example of an emergency helicopter using an unplanned flight path to get to an accident. A police helicopter might also be called and possibly drones used by the media to capture footage. “If they’re all drawn to the same place, you can see the problem,” Horne said.

Reuter agreed, saying, “We’ve had small birds of 250 grammes before that have shattered helicopters’ plexiglass windshields.”

Horne does not advocate keeping the industry tethered to the ground but says any accident involving a drone and an airplane would knock confidence. “It would set the industry back something like 10 years,” he says.

Passenger plane engines could be harmed by coming into contact with a drone, and there have been some close calls already. Last December an investigation in the UK found that a drone came within 20 feet of an incoming plane at Heathrow airport. A close-call was also reported at New York City's La Guardia Airport last week by the US Federal Aviation Administration.

“You’re getting a completely new community in aviation, they have no clue of the risks,” says Thomas Mildenberger, vice president of Vereinigung Cockpit, the German pilots’ union.

It tells you something when not even the UK military, which uses a variety of drones, has worked out how to safely integrate fleets of manned and unmanned aircraft, says Horne. “In theatres of war, they fly in separate airspace,” he points out.

Cleared for take-off

Drones are taking off in civilian life largely thanks to the falling costs of commodity electronics. Today in Europe there are a little over 100 manufacturers making drones and over 2,000 operators, the EU says.

The list of research and commercial activities involving drones is ever-growing. Instead of sending someone with a Geiger counter into Fukushima power station to survey radiation levels, UK-based Bristol University researchers developed a drone for the job, three years after the tsunami that triggered a nuclear emergency in Japan.

Further down the line, drones may be deployed in firefighting, search and rescue missions and monitoring offshore energy infrastructures.

Regulation

Currently, European governments set their own rules on drones. Sweden, France and Italy allow private drone operations. In the UK, anyone can go out and buy a drone weighing less than 20kg, while the Belgian parliament is currently cooking up legislation to allow the commercial use of drones in non-urban areas.

Safety is an important issue but all sorts of privacy concerns are likely to complicate the journey to the statute books. Expectations are shifting all the time. The UK’s House of Lords in March recommended a national online database recording all drone operators and flights. Authorities would trace individual flights, and the general public could use a smartphone app to find the same information.

That the continent “has to catch up” on rules for drones is a prevailing narrative in Europe’s law-making houses and is not helpful, adds Philip von Schöppenthau, ECA’s secretary-general, “Time pressure is rarely a good adviser: the risk is that shortcuts will be taken.”

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