In this series of interviews with drone industry experts from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), we discuss a range of topics, including the integration of drones into European airspaces, the development of U-space airspaces, the societal acceptance of drones, 5G connectivity, harmonising certification efforts and the shift from crewed to uncrewed aircraft. 

These discussions emphasise the importance of collaboration between stakeholders, regulators and the public to ensure the safe, efficient and sustainable growth. 

Learn from EASA's leading advanced aviation experts as they speak to us about how they tackle challenges, explore potential solutions and offer their vision for the future of drone operations in Europe.

1. Interview with Natale di Rubbo, the Drones Project Manager (Open and Specific Category) at EASA

Natale shared insights about European Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) operations outside of designated U-spaces, a topic that was discussed in-depth during his workshop at Amsterdam Drone Week 2023.

Natale emphasised the need for a comprehensive solution that integrates drone traffic with other types of air traffic to enable Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations at scale in Europe. He also mentioned that, at present, the industry lacks a reliable detect and avoid system essential for carrying out complex drone operations on a large scale. This gap presents a challenge to the safe and efficient integration of drones into existing airspaces.

To address this issue, Natale's workshop explored options for utilising U-space services beyond the boundaries of designated U-Space airspaces. The goal is to bring together drone operators, regulators, and other stakeholders to identify and discuss potential solutions that can foster the safe and efficient integration of drones into European airspace.

2. The process of creating U-space airspaces in Europe with EASA’s Drone Programme Manager Maria Algar Ruiz

Maria discussed the development of the U-space framework for Europe and its evolution since its inception in Amsterdam in 2018. The framework has supported the growth of a new community of aviation stakeholders. EASA facilitates collaboration between these stakeholders through initiatives, such as the task force aimed at harmonising the certification approach for the entire EU, with 22 active member states participating.

With the Drone Strategy 2.0, the transition from the development to the implementation phase for U-space airspaces has become a priority. This offers a great opportunity for stakeholders to learn from each other and build the future together. EASA encourages industry-wide co-creation by organising events like workshops, where stakeholders can share experiences and discuss challenges.

Maria hinted at upcoming initiatives, workshops and webinars detailing new regulations. Despite these new regulations, challenges remain, such as the rapid digitisation of U-space creation, requiring the drone industry to quickly learn and adapt. This is a significant departure from traditional aviation, where stakeholders gradually established baseline rules over decades.

The goal is for all stakeholders, both private and public, to work together in defining and improving new processes. By collaborating, the industry can promote open airspace that balances the interests of large and small players while ensuring high levels of safety and security for communities.

3. Focusing on the societal acceptance of drones from all viewpoints with Kai Bauer from EASA

Kai told us about the agency's sustainability initiatives and research aimed at scaling the drone industry while prioritising societal acceptance. Kai emphasised the importance of engaging with citizens to understand their concerns before the widespread adoption of drones. EASA's study found that 83% of EU member state respondents were positive about drones, but concerns about privacy, sustainability, and noise pollution persisted.

To address these issues, EASA organises workshops, such as the one that happened at Amsterdam Drone Week titled "Societal acceptance revisited: Collaborative actions to address noise, sustainability, and other citizen concerns". Kai underscored the importance of proactively addressing citizen and city concerns and learning from mistakes made during the implementation of e-Scooters in urban environments.

EASA actively measures noise pollution and potential emissions from electric aircraft, including end-to-end electricity consumption. By providing research and open-access data, EASA unites drone industry stakeholders and facilitates collaboration between cities and citizens for the future of drone implementation.

Kai concluded with three key takeaways for the drone industry: (1) develop concrete actions to tackle societal acceptance, (2) establish common standards, and (3) ensure collaboration is central to all drone industry innovation efforts, incorporating diverse perspectives from organisations to citizens.

4. 5G as a potential solution to enable connectivity and the recent European eVTOL demonstrations with Sascha Oliver Schott from EASA

Sascha explained more about facilitating mutual understanding between telecommunications and drone organisations to support airborne flight connectivity at scale. He also discussed repetitive eVTOL demonstrations across Europe and their potential to foster widespread acceptance.

Sascha highlighted the importance of collaboration between telecommunications and drone organisations to ensure connectivity, particularly for low-level urban drone operations. Cellular connectivity is a promising solution due to the ubiquity of mobile devices and networks. As a safety agency, EASA is working to ensure telecommunications companies can provide a minimum connectivity level at a given flight centre.

At Amsterdam Drone Week, Sascha hosted a panel on low-level airspace traffic integration, inviting stakeholders to discuss their preparedness and plans for supporting the drone industry's expansion. He also facilitated another panel on lessons learned from eVTOL and IAM demonstrations in European airspace. These demonstrations are expected to have positive consequences, including wider community acceptance.

During the final panel, Sascha engaged a diverse range of IAM stakeholders in discussing the future of innovative air mobility and the added value of repetitive eVTOL and IAM operation demonstrations.

5. Enabling the shift from crewed to uncrewed aircraft at scale with Giuseppe Scannapieco from EASA

Giuseppe discussed the challenges in transitioning from crewed to uncrewed aircraft at scale. Current regulatory frameworks must address safety and responsibility concerns in this shift.

EASA is learning from military remote pilot operations to create regulatory frameworks for civilian drone operations. The key challenge is managing large-scale operations involving multiple aircraft. Regarding autonomous aircraft, no technology enables autonomous flight at scale yet, but the regulatory framework developed in the next five years will account for these innovations. This includes addressing levels of autonomization, responsibilities, and liabilities.

Autonomy raises questions about who is responsible when things go wrong – the aircraft manufacturer, the operator, or the software developer? An appropriate regulatory framework will take time to develop. Experts have discussed the potential for autonomy in aviation, highlighting advantages such as increased efficiency, lower costs, and enhanced safety. However, risks and challenges must be overcome before full autonomy is realised.

There are varying levels of automation in autonomous flight, but full autonomy remains distant. Humans are still involved regardless of the automation degree. In full autonomy, technology takes charge, raising questions about safety, accountability and liability.

6. Harmonising certification efforts across civilian and military drone operations

During our second interview with Maria, she discussed the growing political importance of drones and the need to harmonise civilian and military drone processes.

The ultimate goal is for military and civilian drone stakeholders to establish unified certification processes, streamlining their operational capabilities across different European member states. This idea originates from Drone Strategy 2.0, which emphasised the importance of uniting all stakeholders to drive significant industry advancements through synergistic collaboration between military and civilian entities.

One example of this harmonisation is the type certification granted to civil drone organisations by EASA. If a drone receives type certification in one participating member state, it is valid in other member states as well, creating harmony in the civil drone aviation world. However, military drones require each military authority to undergo its own certification process.

EASA aims to harmonise certification standards for both civil and military drones to eliminate the need for multiple certifications. One of the main challenges is that military drone missions differ significantly from civil drone missions.

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