Patrolling Europe’s low-altitude airspace

The take-away

  • The European Commission has called for an automated drone traffic management system to be known as U-space, and countries like Denmark and Switzerland are working on innovative solutions.
  • Drone regulation may end up being more like that for automated cars than for aircraft.

Commercial drone use continues to soar in Europe. The European Commission predicts that the sector will account for 10% of the aviation market by 2050 – representing sales of €15 billion a year and 150,000 jobs.

That sounds promising for manufacturers and users, but for the average European looking upwards the result could be incredibly cluttered and possibly dangerous airspace. To ensure efficient operation and avoid collisions, commercial drones will become increasingly autonomous. But this also presents some significant operational challenges. If someone puts up a tower crane along a drone’s route, for example, the drone would have to notice and avoid it. Legislators have been left scrambling to play catch up to this technological challenge.

These problems may not seem very different from those of conventional air-traffic management, but throw in issues of privacy, noise and public safety and the picture becomes complex indeed. “The biggest misconception I see around drones is the lens through which we view them,” says Bill Goodwin, head of Legal and Policy at AirMap, the world’s leading airspace management platform for drones (with offices in California and Berlin). “When you look at low-altitude airspace comprehensively, all sorts of questions arise that don’t have an easy aviation analogue,” he says.

From a regulatory perspective, drones traversing messy urban environments filled with people and moveable infrastructure may have more in common with autonomous cars. “I think we’ll gain a greater level of safety in low-altitude airspace if we adopt a terrestrial perspective and then look up rather than taking an aviation perspective and looking down from 40,000 feet,” Goodwin suggests.

Governing drones within Europe’s region-by-region patchwork of low-altitude airspace regulation won’t be easy. In the near term, many EU states are following leaders like Switzerland, the UK and Iceland, which have rolled out laws stipulating altitude limits and no-go areas, such as airports, government buildings and densely built environments. “Recent regulation aims to keep drones from flying above a certain height, so they don’t interact with or damage manned aircraft, but in the long-term we need a better approach,” says Michael Linden-Vørnle, head of the Technical University of Denmark’s Space DroneCenter. Applications for healthcare services and disaster relief are just two examples that may rely on a more nuanced approach to legislation than is currently possible.

A safe U-space for everyone

In a bid to protect the drone market’s potential, the European Commission has called for an automated drone traffic management system and related services – known as U-space. In response to that call, promising technological solutions are emerging in countries like Switzerland and Denmark.

In Switzerland, AirMap’s unmanned aircraft systems traffic management (UTM) system is being put to good use in collaboration with Skyguide, which manages Swiss airspace. The goal is to demonstrate how a well-designed U-space can support drone use in a range of areas that are currently unworkable. “A manufacturer, for example, will be able to integrate real-time information from the regulator and from the air-navigation service provider to ensure their drones are geo-fenced or re-routed around areas where it’s unsafe or imprudent to fly,” explains Goodwin.

U-Space is scheduled to roll out in four phases by 2021.The first phase is automated flight authorisation and cataloguing for drones. Phase two implements flight planning, approval and tracking. Phases three and four will add more complex flight operations like assistance for conflict detection and improved autonomy for both drones and the management system.

Switzerland has long been a leader in complex drone operations. “That forward-thinking approach to using drones in complex ways is in large part due to the progressive and innovative nature of the Swiss regulator,” says Goodwin. “What the industry really needs is a common language for how U-space is implemented, both in law and technologically, so that there isn’t confusion about how to fly in a compliant fashion when travelling between jurisdictions.”

In search of unknowns

Linden-Vørnle explains how a successful U-space can be developed in Denmark. “We’re establishing various setups, including testbeds, to understand what we’ll need in order to develop the right infrastructure,” he says. “UTM systems are one part of that, as are IDs, high-speed communications and high-precision navigation – all technologies that enable this vision of autonomous infrastructure.”

According to Goodwin, a lot of development work is still needed before a fully realised U-space is possible. “U-space faces a number of questions that haven’t been resolved yet,” he says. “For example, once you have the vision for what technology can do, how do you implement and enforce it across a jurisdiction?”

Linden-Vørnle agrees. “There are many ‘soft’ but significant issues around what we really want as a society that still need to be discussed,” he points out. “Do we want the entire sky buzzing with small drones? And how do we embed ethics into autonomous systems?” If legislators can decide on those thorny issues, and remain open to working closely with industry, the skies above us should remain as safe as they are today.



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