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How the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is shaping the drone industry

The ICAO is a part of the United Nations and its job is to make sure civil aviation authorities around the world are aligned with their guidelines and are making international aviation as smooth as possible. Everything from airworthiness, to pilot licensing and safety management systems are part of its remit, and now it is busily taking a closer look at drones. 

Ron van de Leijgraaf is well-placed to explain these developments. He is chair of the ICAO RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) panel, which is a task force dedicated to developing standards for uncrewed aviation. Ron founded the JARUS (Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems) and was a key member of EUROCAE WG93, focusing on small RPAS.

Introducing the work of the ICAO

“The ICAO has standards that are contained in different annexes,” he explains. “They deal with airworthiness, pilot licensing, safety management systems and so on”.  ICAO currently supports 193 contracting states, with the primary objective of facilitating the optimal sharing of airspace between countries. “All aspects of aviation are covered,” Ron adds, “which is why we also have an RPAS panel.”

“We were tasked with developing provisions for unmanned, remotely piloted traffic. We started off with the essential ones, like making sure the operator was a safe organisation, making the aircraft and the system safe to operate and creating supporting systems like basic detection and avoidance. Now it’s evolving to cover more nuanced operations”.

The drone industry has grown far beyond what even the ICAO RPAS panel might have originally imagined. Drones no longer have a single pilot or infallibly operate within their view. There is now an expectation that they operate autonomously and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and the ICAO have not only had to keep up with these rapidly changing times but create a meaningful framework within which nations can operate.

Providing nations with an umbrella

“We are the umbrella,” Ron continues. “We provide a set of international standards, so EASA can develop regulations under that umbrella, the FAA can do that for the US, it can be done in Brazil in China and so on. It’s not completely interchangeable, but it can be interoperable”. 

While it's not possible to update all 19 annexes at the same time, ICAO has already started work on the main ones, which should be in place by 2026. After that, they plan to look at the supporting annexes to create additional standards around the integration of drones into international airspaces, including the transport of potentially dangerous goods and facilitating the ability of drones to cross borders.

Ron draws an important distinction between tactics and strategy when it comes to looking at regulations. “This is strategic work,” he says. “We’re not talking about the tactics of how to fly here and there. It’s about how we harmonise the whole system. And that’s the foundation of everything that we are operating with”.

Democratising the industry

Ron is adamant that one of the ways this foundation stays strong is by breaking what he describes as ‘the barrier between the fortress and the people’. That can only happen when other organisations are able to contribute.

“Countries are members of ICAO and they are usually invited to provide experts to the various panels,” Ron explains. “Together with that, there are also internationally recognised organisations representing air traffic controllers or pilots’ organisations, so they are invited as well. And members can bring advisors onto the panel, so if an industry body or consultancy wants to participate, they become an adviser to their national member”.

The interview with Ron was conducted at Amsterdam Drone Week earlier this year, one of the giant, multinational events that marks the industry’s final emergence from the post-COVID blues. For Ron, the buzz coming from the huge crowd on the floor of the exhibition space also said something else.

“They don’t come from traditional aviation backgrounds,” he says. “They take the approach of the unmanned aviation industry, which is more open and where there is more interaction on other aspects than making the aircraft safe and awarding pilots’ licences. That gives events like this a really positive energy”. 

Everyone who was present at the event is likely to agree - and to be full of optimism for a future full of possibilities. To see the interview in full, go to [LINK].

About ICAO

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is a United Nations agency, set up to help 193 states who are signatories to the Chicago Convention share their skies to benefit everyone. Its vision is the worldwide alignment of air regulations and procedures, and a global aviation network that unites the world.

This means that they will work together to adopt standards, practices and policies that enable international civilian flight. Industries and civil society groups, as well as relevant multilateral organizations, contribute to the ICAO as ‘Invited Organizations’.

The ICAO Secretariat is funded and directed by member states so it can provide technical, legal and administrative support as people work towards international air transport cooperation. It also develops programmes and guidance materials as well as auditing, training and implementation support initiatives so countries benefit from compliance with global norms. 

About Ron

Ron has a lot of experience working with drones and other remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) as the member and chairman of national and international bodies. He is currently working as a policymaker at the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management at the Hague in the Netherlands where he works on national policy and regulation, international coordination and harmonisation of these systems.

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