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17th Aug 2022

EU promises new dawn for drone makers

  • Drones to be fitted with ID tags to help prevent snooping (Photo: ninfaj)

The EU Commission has promised to help European drone makers conquer world markets, as part of wider efforts to export EU aviation rules.

Violeta Bulc, the transport commissioner, said in Brussels on Monday (7 December) upcoming drone laws will create “a European-based regulatory framework” which will “create the conditions” for EU-based commercial producers to “stay the leader, globally.”

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She said the laws, to be drawn up by Easa, the EU flight safety agency, based in Cologne, Germany, will “strike a balance between safety, security, legal certainty, privacy and data protection requirements.”

“It will really enable the drone indsutry in Europe to take off,” she said.

The pledge, part of a broader commission “aviation package”, is short on details for the time being. But documents published Monday indicate the EU agency is to draft joint standards on design, production, and certification, while member states will be free to decide where and when they can fly.

With ever-smaller and cheaper drones capable of taking photos or livestreaming audiovisual content, the commission said there’ll be a “safety requirement to equip the unmanned aircraft with an identification device, like an electronic identification chip, also help detecting persons who did not respect privacy or data protection rules.”

It said air safety bodies shouldn’t have to invoke full accident-report protocols in the event of small drone-to-drone collisions.

The US and Israel dominate world markets of military drones. The US Federal Aviation Administration has also promised to finalise rules for drone use in civilian airspace by 2016.

But small, niche EU firms are growing quickly.

A recent profile of the sector by The Economist, a British weekly, noted, for instance, that Delair-Tech, a French firm which employs 50 people, has seen sales grow by 200 percent a year for the past four years. Its kit is used by French railway firm SNCF to check its lines and by cognac producer Remy Martin to see which parts of its vineyards need extra water.

OmniworkX, a Dutch firm, which is expanding to the UK, Germany, and Malaysia, sells drones to steel-makers to look for cracks in giant ovens and to oil firms to check tops of rigs.

“Over 50 percent of the world’s drone activity, its new systems, is happening in Europe,” Andrew Charlton, of the Small UAV Coalition, said.

Bilateral accords

Bulc on Monday also urged EU states to let the Commission negotiate new aviation accords with a list of countries.

It named Armenia, China, Japan, Mexico, and Turkey, as well as the 11 south-east Asian states in the Asean club, and the six Arab states in the GCC club.

The agreements, broadly speaking, are designed to export EU aviation rules in order to give European carrirers a competitve advantage. But they also have nation-specific hooks.

The deals with Armenia and Turkey would have political symbolism in terms of EU integration. The China deal could help the EU address CO2 concerns.

The deals with Turkey, which is pumping state aid into building the world’s biggest airport, in Istanbul, and with Gulf states, accused of using oil money to help national airlines expand, could address competition concerns without launching EU anti-trust cases.

The bilateral accords could also see the EU lift its ban on foreign firms owning more than 49 percent of EU-based airlines, if third countries agree to “reciprocity” for European investors.

Security burden

Bulc said the EU also wants to clinch more “one-stop” security pacts, which allow transit passengers to avoid extra security checks if they’ve already been screened by a state deemed up-to-scratch on safety.

The EU has a security pact in place with the US and is finalising ones with Canada and Montenegro in February.

Other elements in Monday’s package include: using more modern software for air-traffic control and enforcing shorter and more direct flight paths.

The commission noted the software improvement alone could create an extra 300,000 jobs. It is on course for 1.4 million flights a year by 2035, 50 percent more than in 2012.

But what the commission called “fragmentation” of European airspace costs “at least” €5 billion a year and up to 50 million tonnes in CO2. Capacity constraints at airports could also cost up to 818,000 jobs by 2035.

Green group

Major airlines and trade associations broadly welcomed the commission strategy Monday, pending more details.

But for its part, the Green group in the EU Parliament says it focused exclusively on "promoting growth in the aviation sector," while ignoring issues such as "climate change impact, pollution, nuisance and health problems."

"It is ... both ironic and cynical that the commission is presenting these proposals during the COP21 UN climate talks in Paris," it said.

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