A Guide to U-space & the European Drone Rules

Europe drone rules

Last year, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) published common, pan-European drone rules. These rules not only help protect the safety and privacy of EU citizens, but also enable the free movement of drones across European borders.

As a follow-up to these airspace rules, EASA recently published a proposed regulatory framework for U-space to help ensure unmanned aircraft operate in a safe, secure, and connected environment.

Our guide covers everything you need to know about the latest rules and requirements impacting commercial drone operators and airspace authorities across the EU.
 

What are the latest European drone rules?

The common European rules for drones create three categories of operations: open, specific, or certified – each with their own set of regulations.

  •  “Open operations” are for smaller drones up to 25kg. Drones are required to operate within visual line of sight, up to a max height of 120m, in a safe distance from people, and with no dangerous goods. These low-risk operations don’t require authorization, but they’re limited in the airspace they can fly.
  • “Specific operations” go beyond the limitations of the open category to enable more advanced operations, such as beyond visual line of sight with larger drones. Operators are required to receive authorization with the airspace authority in their member state through a risk assessment that evaluates their mitigation measures. Alternatively, operators can be certified via the Light Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate (LUC). The LUC comes with privileges for commercial operators to authorize their own operations.
  • “Certified operations” is considered the highest-risk category and covers the use of drones carrying passengers and potentially dangerous goods over densely populated areas. In addition to authorization through a risk assessment, these operations require a certification of the unmanned aircraft system (UAS).

The rules are expected to go into effect beginning July 1, 2020. Once in effect, commercial drone operators are expected to register in the member state where their main place of business is located.
 

What is U-space?

U-space is a set of services to help drone operators comply with the new rules while enabling EU member states to manage the growing volume of drones in their airspace. U-space services can help process UAS flight authorizations and provide operators with the tools and information they need to plan safe flights, prevent collisions with other aircraft, and remain compliant with the environmental, security, and privacy requirements set by each member state. These services are critical to maintain an orderly flow of unmanned traffic and notify authorities of any situations that may pose a safety risk to people or property on the ground.
 

Why are U-space services necessary?

Similar to what we’re seeing in the United States, the rising number of unmanned aircraft in European airspace is leading to safety, security, and airspace integration challenges. As the volume of manned aircraft grows simultaneously, air traffic management systems in Europe are already reaching their limits. These human-centric systems aren’t equipped to safely and efficiently manage a large number of highly automated drone operations. A complementary airspace system is required to manage unmanned traffic. U-space services were established to help fill this gap.
 

What’s the purpose of the U-space regulatory framework?

The development of a regulatory framework aims to enable the safe and harmonized use of U-space services across Europe. Member states are responsible for defining their own UAS geographic zones in the airspace where U-space services will be offered. However, a pan-European regulatory framework can enable a common approach to manage unmanned traffic by having the same rules and procedures for all drone operators across the EU.

The primary objectives of the proposed framework include:

  • Supporting safe, secure, and environmentally friendly operations in U-space airspace while respecting the privacy of European citizens;
  • Maintaining the current safety levels for manned aviation;
  • Creating conditions for an internal market for U-space services; and
  • Ensuring fair, affordable, and efficient access to the U-space airspace for all airspace users.

The regulatory framework can also enable more complex drone operations, such as beyond visual line of sight and advanced air mobility (e.g., air taxis).
 

Who are the stakeholders involved in U-Space?

The regulatory proposal intends to create the conditions for unmanned aircraft to operate safely in controlled and uncontrolled airspace where U-space services are provided. To achieve this, an exchange of information is required between U-space service providers, drone operators, air navigation service providers, and other participants.

Here’s a breakdown of the key U-space participants and their responsibilities according to the proposal:

  • Drone operators: Operators are expected to mitigate risks in the air and on the ground within U-space environments. They’re required to establish a contract with a U-space service provider to receive flight authorization and the services they need to avoid mid-air collisions and ensure an orderly flow of traffic.
  • U-space service providers (USSP): U-space service providers support the safe and efficient movement of drones in the U-space airspace and ensure coordination with manned aircraft. These organizations must be certified to provide U-space services in one or more European member states. To become certified, organizations are required to provide four mandatory U-space services: network identification, geo-awareness, traffic information, and UAS flight authorization. That means providers must be equipped to share critical airspace data (e.g., airspace restrictions, air traffic) with drone operators and exchange UAS operational data with air navigation service providers.
  • Air traffic management (ATM) & air navigation service providers (ANSPs): These providers will continue providing air navigation services for manned aircraft while USSPs provide U-space services for unmanned aircraft. However, these providers must collaborate to ensure flight authorizations are coordinated and exchange information about the airspace designated for manned and unmanned operations.  
  • Member states: Member states in the EU will have full authority on the designation of U-space airspace and decide how their airspace should be accessed and restricted. In addition to the four services required by EASA, member states can require USSPs to provide additional U-space services to support safe and efficient drone operations.

 

How will U-space be implemented in Europe?

 Currently, there are two options being considered:

  • There is no development of a U-space regulatory framework at the EU level. U-space implementation is left to each EU member state.
  • A European regulatory framework for U-space is developed and implemented across the EU.

EASA would prefer to develop a harmonized framework for U-space across Europe. This approach is expected to enable a safer environment and create clear guidelines for managing unmanned traffic. By defining a clear set of rules for all U-space participants, this option will create a minimum level playing field across the EU as well as an efficient and equitable airspace access for all aircraft operators.
 

What’s the impact on commercial drone operators in Europe?

 If U-space is established at the EU level, as proposed by EASA, commercial drone operators will be required to access four services through a U-space service provider:

  • Flight authorization: Commercial drone operators must receive flight authorization through a U-space service provider for access to both controlled and uncontrolled airspace. With visibility into all unmanned traffic, USSPs can pre-tactically manage the traffic flow and deconflict flights before they take place.
  • Geo-awareness: Drone operators must also access information about UAS geographic zones through a U-space service provider to ensure airspace compliance across the EU. Each member state can establish different UAS geographical zones to indicate where drone operators can fly and under which conditions.
  • Network identification: This service enables the traceability of unmanned aircraft during flight through both network and broadcast information. USSPs will exchange this information with other providers to ensure operators have access to the most up to date flight data. This service helps avoid the requirement of additional remote ID equipment for drones.
  • Traffic information: This service alerts drone operators when other aircraft are in close proximity to their vehicle or their intended route. Through network identification information, USSPs can provide accurate data about the position of other aircraft to help operators avoid collisions.

The U-space proposal also includes other optional services drone operators can access through U-space service providers:

  • Tracking service: This supporting service can be used to track both real-time and historical UAS telemetry data. USSPs can track drones through the signal between the aircraft and its remote controller as well as through additional surveillance options (e.g., e-identification). By receiving data from more than one tracking source, this service can provide more reliable unmanned flight data.
  • Weather information: This service provides the weather information necessary to support drone operational decisions in U-space airspace. Since weather data in low altitude airspace isn’t provided by today’s air navigation services, USSPs can provide this information to help operators safely navigate shifting weather conditions.
  • Conformance monitoring: This service monitors the flight path of each drone and compares it to the planned mission as defined during flight authorization. When a new geo-fence or a hazardous situation is detected during flight, the U-space service provider will alert the impacted operators and other USSPs so they can take the appropriate action.

 

What’s the impact on airspace authorities in Europe?

U-space regulations established at the EU level can help minimize the burden on airspace authorities in each member state when it comes to managing unmanned traffic. Without a pan-European regulation, authorities would be responsible for certifying all U-space service providers, maintaining their own national legislation, and ensuring compliance among all participants. This would be in addition to their oversight duties for manned aircraft.

With a pan-European regulation, authorities would be required to redesign their airspace and ensure the accuracy of aeronautical data shared with U-space participations. However, it could enable a harmonized implementation of the U-space airspace and services across the EU.
 

What are the next steps?

The main objective of the U-space proposal is to develop the first building block of a European regulatory framework that can ensure manned and unmanned aircraft safely coexist in U-space airspace while mitigating risks on the ground. The final U-space regulations are expected to be adopted by the European Commission in Q4 2020 and will evolve with the growing density and complexity of unmanned traffic.

Now and after the regulations are finalized, SkyGrid is committed to supporting both commercial operators and airspace authorities in member states across the EU. Our AerialOS™ uses artificial intelligence and blockchain technology to intelligently route, synchronize, and manage unmanned aircraft in shared airspace. We monitor, predict, and adapt to changing conditions to solve the industry’s biggest challenges enabling safe, autonomous flight.
 

Learn more about SkyGrid’s AerialOS.