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High-Level Conference on Drones 2019

The 2019 High-Level Conference on Drones was held in Amsterdam on 5–6 December. The two-day event was an excellent opportunity to discuss important issues regarding the development of new U-Space regulations regarding unmanned operations. Such issues include society's attitude and expectations, separation or integration and air traffic management of expected volumes.

Patrick Ky, EASA Executive Director, opened the conference with a welcome address, advising that a significant step was the adoption of a new regulation on drones for Open and Specific Categories, due to be enforceable next year. Guidance Material and Acceptable Means of Compliance will also be published for drone operators and EU member states.

Regarding U-Space, an EASA Opinion will be sent to the European Commission in March 2020, which will go a long way to creating the conditions for harmonised operations in Europe. Following the much-publicised events at London Gatwick airport in December 2018, EASA is now actively involved with counter-drone awareness by educating all stakeholders in the event of a future incursion at an airport. Ky concluded by stating that the co-operation between EASA, the European Commission, SESAR JU and stakeholders has been remarkable and enabled further steps to be successfully taken towards a common EU drone market.

Airbus provided insight regarding their individual urban air transport (Vahana alpha 2) and CityAirbus demonstrator multi-passenger piloted autonomous flights. Additionally, their Skyways concept was proof that delivery drones can operate in urban areas (Singapore). However, it was stressed that Urban Air Mobility has three major concerns, namely 1) safety in the air and ground; 2) noise generated from the volume of sound of aerial vehicles; and 3) visual pollution of our skies.

The first of several panel sessions was titled 'Implementing New EU Regulations on Open and Specific Categories – are we on track?' Of note was EASA, who advised that the adequate implementation of EU regulations is key to achieving regulatory objectives and ultimately: safe, secure and clean drone operations in a leading EU market.

Another panel session focussed on 'Preparing for Future Operations – More Complex Operations'. The regulatory framework is still to be defined, including safety implications and social acceptance of operation that carry passengers. The Volocopter concept in Singapore is successfully addressing these hurdles.

It was encouraging to hear that historical competitors, Boeing and Airbus, both agreed greater collaboration will bring autonomous technology in aviation a closer reality.

Regarding EU member states, each city/country has its own unique characteristics with varying relevant stakeholder activity, depending on whether such operations will be in a city centre etc. Such obstacles will require collaboration between the industry, community and regulators.

Ky returned to open day two of the conference and was accompanied by Maria Algar Ruiz, EASA Drones Programme Manager. Ky advised that following the consultation on the EASA Draft Opinion for U-Space, 2600+ comments were received from 86 stakeholders. Looking ahead, the U-Space Regulation opinion will be adopted by March 2020 and a proposal submitted to the European Commission for implementation by the end 2020.

Many comments in the consultation covered similar concerns, with the most common being:

  • there should be a general understanding of the concept of U-Space;
  • clear identification of the roles and responsibilities of ANSPs etc;
  • what will be the UTM/ATM interaction;
  • definition of the architecture and how U-Space will work; and
  • who will be responsible for the financing mechanism.

A panel session then explored 'U-Space Regulatory Challenges and Operational Opportunities'. The panel was quite diverse in that it included representatives from EASA, an ANSP, the air sport community, a UTM software supplier and was moderated by the European Commission.

It was agreed that the U-Space system needs to be flexible and take a step by step approach. The first EASA Opinion will not answer all the questions, but instead should be seen as a framework all stakeholders can build on.

From a social acceptance perspective, the public who use commercial aviation have the right to feel safe and these concerns should be appeased by ensuing that U-Space is correctly and safely regulated.

Regarding the General Aviation community, who are prominent users of Class G airspace, concern was expressed regarding access to U-Space. They advised that there are two major principles to be accepted, namely safety must remain the number one priority, and simplicity to allow GA aircraft to fly in U-Space airspace.

Finally, U-Space flight planning and flight notification approved processes should be put in place and many ANSPs support this initiative.