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The state of the drone industry in Italy with ENAV’s Cristiano Baldoni

Cristiano Baldoni has played an instrumental in the development of the Italian U-space implementation efforts through his work at the ENAV Group. ENAV is heavily involved in the international air traffic management system in Italy and plays a key role in creating the Single European Sky, which is an initiative aimed at harmonising air traffic management across Europe. 

Cristiano Baldoni has directly contributed to ENAV's involvement in the SESAR initiative, which dates back to the inception of the ENAV Group in 2003. He has also led the organisation’s participation in the programme since 2004 and played a key role in delivering the 2008 ATM Master Plan in Rome.

Since January 2016, Cristiano Baldoni has also taken on the responsibility of leading the CNS engineering unit within the Technology Directorate of ENAV. He was later appointed as Head of Business Systems Integration of D-Flight, which is a new company established by ENAV and leading Italian technology industries in the development of U-space airspaces. It was created as a European initiative that aims to integrate drones into national airspace systems. 

State of the Italian drone industry: Amsterdam Drone Week 2023

Cristiano Baldoni is a regular at Amsterdam Drone Week and has been going for the past 4 or 5 years. He told us that he sees the event as a very important way to network with regulators like EASA and those in the European Commission. It’s a place for industry stakeholders to learn more about future regulatory roadmaps and also learn a few of the upcoming highlights.

During his time at Amsterdam Drone Week in 2023, he plans to speak about the state of the Italian drone industry, so make sure to register for the event before it’s sold out. 

This year’s event is also likely to be more important than past events as we’ve seen incredible progress for the European Union with the new U-space regulations. Still, these regulations will take some time before they’re fully used to implement airborne drone operations at scale. Cristiano mentioned that the problem with this is that it’s up to each individual government to begin using these regulations to establish new U-spaces for commercial drones to operate in.

Although the legislation was put into place in early 2023, the date that these regulations enter into force doesn’t mean anything if the governments aren’t doing anything to support the implementation of these regulations. This means many of the next steps are currently dependent on the competent authorities that are driving the implementation of airborne drone operations at a national level.

Private industry and government authorities co-creating the advanced aviation

The cooperation between private industry players and government authorities will likely mix as well. That includes governments developing new U-space airspaces while private industry players help to establish the different U-space service providers (USSPs). Until these airspaces are established, the new U-space regulations, as advanced as they are, have no real place to be applied, which is the first step. 

Cristiano Baldoni’s organisation, ENAV, plans to be one of the major players in structuring and supporting the implementation of new u-space airspaces in Italy. Still, without the collaboration of the government, this isn’t possible. To see an example where these collaborations are happening well, one could look at the implementation of new u-space airspaces in Switzerland, Germany or Spain. 

Cristiano Baldoni also told us that Italy, at the moment, is struggling to find a system to empower the designation of new u-space airspaces. The authority will likely need more time to understand the new regulations that were released in early 2023 before things begin moving forward for the industry. He told us that this is also not a new thing that has happened with the authorities. He gave an example when he explained that in all of 2022, Italy only granted 27 authorisations for the beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations. 

That means the Italian drone market is very small, which brings more problems with the practical implementation of U-space in Italy as there are no established common information service providers (CIS) or even the required infrastructure to begin implementing CIS services for drone organisations. Without these providers, the National Common Information Service provider is likely to be ENAV who will have to develop and deploy the Italian CIS solution, which will be required for the USSP certification roadmap. 

A call for help to civil aviation authorities

Due to the close dependency of the commercial drone industry on the government, it means innovation and organisational goals are being held back by the competent authorities. The other problem is that the authorities are not capable of monitoring the entire market, which slows down progress from happening, so even useful regulations like c-class markings, which should be simple, are holding entire organisations back by months due to the lack of capacity on the side of the authorities.

The aviation industry was created as a small industry, so having a subsection of drones suddenly pushing for wide-scale implementation disrupts the entire structure of civil aviation authorities and how they’ve been operating for decades. This change hasn’t been a gradual one either. Organisations are now expecting this change to happen in a matter of months with the implementation of the new U-space regulations creating more friction.

Drone technology is incredibly advanced, so it will likely be a learning experience for organisations and civil aviation authorities throughout the world as they learn how to safely implement complex drone operations. This will involve a much larger market than has ever been seen before in traditional aviation. It will involve more than just the old legacy players from crewed air traffic management (ATM), which will provide the basis for the transformation of a subsection of the industry for uncrewed traffic management (UTM).

Another problem is that people are looking at beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations at scale in areas with high population density, but there is a vicious circle that goes along with this ambition because we don’t currently have a solution that allows for BVLOS operations without proper U-space airspaces. Without these, there are only a small number of options available for those who want to implement this type of drone operation, which is why most companies in Italy are operating in the open category under visual line of sight (VLOS) operations. 

How will things move forward in Italy?

Cristiano Baldoni continued to explain that, currently, regulators grant reserved airspaces for dedicated activities like power or gas distribution. To even begin using drones for visual line of sight (VLOS) operations, there are a lot of requirements, which means that there are only limited cases where this is possible. To handle this situation, the Italian authorities have started to grant airspaces to these operators, which has essentially fragmented airspace to avoid the need for an established U-space airspaces. 

The problem is past dependency on fragmented airspaces can create a resistance to establishing U-space airspaces because there is no clear benefit to deviate from past dependency. In a fragmented airspace, organsiations also don’t need to have a good detect and avoid system (which doesn’t exist yet), remote-ID or common information service providers, among other essential services. Instead, a series of complex corridors have been built. 

This goes against the philosophy of the new European U-space regulations because it limits the freedom of a flexible U-space airspaces for all players. Ad hoc corridors in segmented airspaces prevent new companies from joining the industry, which is the opposite goal of what the member states should be advocating for. 

Cristiano Baldoni left us with some good news: Although things are behind what we’d like to have, they are moving slowly in the right direction with proven profitable use cases for logistics and medical parcel deliveries. 

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