Ashton calls for military-grade drones in EU airspace

22.10.13 @ 18:03

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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BRUSSELS - A security strategy paper by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton says EU countries should use military-grade drones for border surveillance.

  • The French Harfang drone was used in Afghanistan (Photo: EADS)

The EU chief is set to debate security ideas with MEPs in the plenary chamber in Strasbourg on Wednesday (23 October).

Her plan, which outlines priorities in the lead up to an EU summit on defence in December, notes that there is “an urgent need to prepare a programme for the next generation” of so-called Medium Altitude Long Endurance (Male) drones.

It adds that: "The objective is to promote a European approach for developing this key future capability."

Germany, France, Italy and the UK already have the machines, but only use them in military-led operations.

But industry wants to make drones that can be used for both military and civilian operations, such as border control, but also for monitoring agriculture, civilian infrastructure and natural disasters.

The idea is to allow authorities to easily switch MALE equipment according to mission type.

Big EU defence companies are already lining up.

In June, France's Dassualt, Franco-German firm EADS and Italy's Finmeccanica signed a joint declaration to launch their own European MALE programme.

The companies want to make the drones more suitable for EU airspace by addressing outstanding issues which prevent them from flying alongside commercial airliners on a regular basis.

Crime fighting drones

EU-based industries are not alone.

Global weapons manufacturer Israel Aerospace Industries has received EU funding to help an EU-led project to develop crime-stopping drones.

The idea is to create drones that can stop moving cars and boats by “non-lethal” means.

Called Aeroceptor, the three-year-long €4.8 million project, kicked off in January.

Project co-ordinators are unable release any information on how the flying machines can stop a boat at sea without destroying it because they are still in the initial stages of the study.

“We are in the phase of selection of the actual systems (payloads) that may potentially be suitable for the intended use of the system, which is slowing down and stopping the non-cooperative vehicles,” an Aeroceptor contact told this website in an email.

Regulatory hurdles

MALE drones, which can fly at the same altitude as normal passenger airliners, face a number of technical, safety and regulatory hurdles.

Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based European air traffic control body, say they can be flown over places like the Mediterranean Sea but only in pre-designated and segregated airspace.

Allocating airspace for the drone’s flight path is easier over the Mediterranean than over mainland Europe because there is less air traffic.

“If you want to operate on the border of Africa and the southern part of Europe, I don’t think you will have a lot of people you are intervening or blocking there,” said Mike Lissone, who manages Eurocontrol’s integration division of unmanned aerial systems and air traffic management.

Integrating the drones into EU commercial airspace, however, is a major obstacle.

The UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which sets global aviation rules, will not allow drones to fly at the same altitudes as manned aircraft without getting permission from national authorities.

New EU rules in the works

A EU source told this website the European Commission is currently working on EU legislation to get around ICAO restrictions.

New EU rules are to be introduced on aircraft certification, on remote pilot licensing and on operator certification on safety. Other rules are set to cover issues like security, data protection and privacy.

The source noted that the commission is set to adopt its drone policy “in the coming weeks.”

The policy paper will outline the regulatory work and research needed to get the machines flying over EU fields and cities without any problems.

Integrating drones and overcoming other outstanding issues over EU airspace is likely to take years, however.

A tentative 2028 deadline is foreseen to have everything complete for drones that weigh less than 150 kilos.

Safety issues are a key issu.

The military-grade drones lack reliable anti-collision systems, in a glitch which is technically difficult to overcome.

Drones fly at different speeds and are much smaller, making them more difficult to detect and avoid by a pilot sitting in a normal airliner, such as a Boeing 737.

“If you have something that flies at 100 knots between all the big ones, nobody will accept it,” said Eurocontrol's Lissone.

Pilots operating the drones from ground stations are unable to feel turbulence or the roll and pitch of the aircraft.

They also rely on a data link – or digital umbilical chord - between the aircraft and the ground station.

Lissone estimates 20,000 drones weighing less than 150 kilos have already been sold in the EU.

Around 10 member states have no laws on small drones flying below the 150 metre mark, escaping strict regulations in place elsewhere, he added.

“This is going extremely fast and this is also the concern for the public,” he said of the smaller vehicles flying at low altitudes.