Want to embrace drone technology? 2017 could be your year

Brid-Aine Parnell

Sunday 12 February 2017

Uncertain rules and regulations around drone use have held back the predicted explosive growth in the industry. But now several European countries and EU bodies are working on drone-specific legislation, addressing issues such as user licensing, penalties for misuse and traffic management, which will break the sector wide open for investment and collaboration.

It looks like 2017 could be the year the ambiguity around drone use starts to clear up. New legislation is on its way in Europe, opening up this fast-growing sector for investment.

The drone industry is in an interesting position right now. Experts have been predicting explosive growth in the sector for some time, and early signs suggest they’re right. Nevertheless, it’s been a precarious investment prospect because of the myriad unresolved regulatory issues around the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). From who should regulate the UAVs to who controls the skies they’ll use and how pilots should be monitored, the industry has been hampered by many unanswered questions.

Europe to embrace eyes in the sky

But the uncertainty is starting to fade. Late last year, the UK announced that anyone who buys a drone in the future could be required to register the drone and take a safety test, similar to the driving theory test for a car licence. The government is currently in consultations to work out the finer points of this rule, along with potentially tougher penalties for entering no-fly zones.

In France, the national postal service is testing drone-based parcel delivery once a week along a fixed route of nine miles. And in Sweden, the government is planning to scrap the requirement for drone owners to have permits for UAVs with cameras, which had become, in effect, a ban on drones.

According to Andrew Charlton, executive director of Drone Alliance Europe (DAE), 2017 will be a landmark year for pan-European legislation.

“The European Commission, European Parliament and the Council of the European Union are currently working to finalise reforms to the 2008 EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) Basic Regulation.

“As drafted, the relevant section of the Basic Regulation establishes a high-level pan-European Drone Framework – a promising first step toward a robust pan-European drone market. Trilogue negotiations between the three institutions are set to begin in mid-February, with the aim of reaching a final agreement by mid-2017,” he said.

Clear regulations make way for growth

As the regulations become more transparent, that promised industry growth has room to flourish. Already, UAVs are being put to many more uses than they were just a few years ago, said Sue Wolfe, director for business development for the Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems UK (ARPAS-UK).

“Drones are becoming ubiquitous in our society, and are increasingly being regarded as simply a tool in a toolkit. ARPAS-UK has seen a growth in membership (commercial businesses involved with drones) of over 300 per cent in the last year which reflects the massive changes we are seeing,” she said.

“A recent membership survey has revealed considerable proportional changes in the use of drones by our membership – a substantial shift from TV, film and media towards building and structures inspection and other industrial uses. Environmental applications are expanding rapidly too – looking at impacts of climate change, such as work on flood defences, or wildlife populations, using methods either not previously possible, or vastly more cost-effective.

“Drones are no longer only being used for information-gathering either. We’re increasingly seeing drones used for medical deliveries, for example, so the growth in benefits of drones in humanitarian aid – either for remote communities or even rapid responses to avoid road delays in Western societies, is growing apace.”

Advantages of working together

The SESAR Joint Undertaking – a pan-European public/private partnership that is working towards giving Europe a high-performance air traffic management infrastructure – estimates there will be 400,000 UAVs used for commercial and government purposes by 2050. While drone use is expanding, further regulatory changes are needed to take advantage of that kind of growth.

“The EU must support the development of a low-cost, interoperable unmanned traffic management (UTM) framework that promotes the safe and secure integration of expanded drone operations,” said DAE’s Charlton.

“Such a system will not only generate and maintain confidence in the reliability and safety of drone operations, but also enable the types of advanced operations that will propel the industry to broad economic success and job growth. An important part of this is also ensuring that there is a simple but reliable registration system in place, which will enable police and other law enforcement agencies to identify the owners of drones engaged in inappropriate uses.

“Last, the EU must establish a regulatory framework that ensures the flexible use of licensed, unlicensed and spectrum sharing opportunities for drone technology.”

The work is not finished yet, but governments worldwide and across Europe are taking steps in the right direction to legislate for drone use. With that legislation in place, there will be nothing holding back projected growth in the industry, so there’s never been a better time to think about investment and collaboration.

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