Reliance on drone technology has increased over the years with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) now featuring in a multitude of activities. Drones can generate economic growth, provide wider consumer choice and even support services carried out in the public interest such as customs control, search and rescue and firefighting.
If left unregulated, however, drones raise numerous concerns such as privacy and data protection. More alarmingly, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can pose a significant threat to public safety and security. The use of drones by violent non-state actors, such as the Islamic State, to carry out attacks as well as the abrupt temporary closure of Gatwick Airport in 2018 due to alleged unauthorised drone activity in its perimeter are just two examples.
The European Union is acutely aware of these anxieties arising from the exponential adoption of drone technology and has been taking significant legislative steps to regulate UAV use.
Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/945 and Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947 became applicable in 2019 and 2021 respectively and contain the first detailed European rule set for the design and operation of drones. These establish standards on registration, geo-awareness and remote identification requirements for drone activity, among others.
This regulatory framework has laid the foundations for what has been dubbed as U-space, defined earlier in 2017 by the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) Joint Undertaking as “a set of new services and specific procedures designed to support safe, efficient and secure access to airspace for large numbers of drones” alongside manned aircraft. Put simply, the principle behind U-space is that, eventually, all airspace is to be made accessible to drones.
The U-space Package
On April 22, the European Commission intensified its efforts in this regard by adopting three new regulations (Commission Implementing Regulations (EU) 2021/664, 2021/665 and 2021/666) aimed at establishing an initial U-space framework.
This so-called U-space Package will become directly applicable from January 26, 2023, and pursues the objectives set in the 2015 Aviation Strategy for Europe as elaborated further in the 2016 Warsaw Conference on Drones.
The U-space Package also augments the principles set out in Regulations 2019/945 and 2019/947 by introducing the possibility for member states to make part of their controlled airspace also available for drone operations, subject however to a risk assessment and provided certain conditions are met.
Public confidence in the use of drones requires increased operational transparency
These include: (i) the use by drone operators of several specific services known as U-space services, among which are mandatory ones such as a network identification service, a geo-awareness service, a UAS flight authorisation service and a traffic information service; (ii) adherence by drone operators to certain minimum requirements; (iii) requiring member states to grant, on a non-discriminatory basis, access to relevant authorities, air traffic service providers, U-space service providers and drone operators to certain data such as horizontal and vertical limits of the U-space airspace, a list of certified U-space service providers and information on airspace restrictions imposed by competent authorities.
The U-space Package also obliges air traffic service providers to dynamically reconfigure the U-space airspace to ensure that manned and unmanned aircraft are kept at a safe distance from each other by temporarily limiting the area allowed for drone operations to accommodate, and in a way prioritise, manned traffic demand.
Manned aircraft operating in U-space airspace in the absence of air traffic control services are now also obliged to continuously make themselves electronically conspicuous to U-space service providers.
Are we there yet?
The services and procedures comprising the U-space and the corresponding legislative enactments are being introduced in a staggered manner, progressing from one stage to the next as developments in unmanned traffic management technology and infrastructure satisfy the aviation industry’s safety standards.
According to SESAR Joint Undertaking, the 2019 Regulations and the U-space Package are slated to be followed by rules requiring drones to be equipped with an automatic detect and avoid (DAA) system to counter unexpected hazards during flight as well as rules allowing complete drone integration with manned air traffic and all airspace services by 2035.
EU-wide legal instruments catering for such an intense level of integration may perhaps still be a long way from seeing final introduction, but it is undoubted that as drone technology continues to accelerate, the legal frameworks will have to find a way to keep up.
Public confidence in the use of drones requires increased operational transparency and accountability before the full potential of UAV use can be unleashed. U-space is a landmark step in this journey which will revolutionise flying forever.
Steffi Vella Laurenti, senior associate, Aviation Department, Fenech & Fenech Advocates
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