The Swiss drone ecosystem is flourishing. The growing number of drones however increasingly raises security issues. The regulators in Switzerland as well as in the EU acknowledge the massive potential of the drone economy and are working to build a wider regulatory framework to keep drone operations safe and secure. Therefore, there is quite some movement in the legislative process. This post gives an update on the most recent developments. Until the new drone regulations will take effect, the current Swiss regulation which we have summarized here applies. This post also outlines the key points of U-Space, the landmark project of skyguide (the Swiss air navigation service provider that monitors Swiss airspace). Skyguide has taken the lead in the development of an automated traffic management system for unmanned aircrafts, aiming at setting standards in Switzerland and beyond.

Regulatory developments for a safe airspace

To date, estimates assume that roughly 100,000 drones are operated in Switzerland. With increased sky traffic, the potential for conflicts with other manned or unmanned aerial vehicles rises. The number of drones seen by pilots or air traffic control in airspace rose sharply last year. In May 2018 a drone collided with a helicopter – according to the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) the first incident between a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) and a manned aircraft in Switzerland.

In the current autumn session 2018 the Swiss parliament discussed a motion of Martin Candinas / CVP according to which the traffic in the sky shall be regulated more vigorously. The proposal aims at a registration obligation for all drones operated in Switzerland. By registering the drone, the operator can be established in case of an accident. This accountability should lead to a more sensible and responsible handling of drones. On 12 September 2018 the motion was approved by both chambers of parliament. The federal council supports the motion and is now in charge of drafting a bill. Key matter of the bill shall be a national drone registry, however, keeping the burden for citizens, operators and authorities as light as possible. According to the federal council, the EU regulations (see below) shall be mirrored as closely as possible to ensure market access for the Swiss drone ecosystem.

U-Space: A landmark project

Skyguide is working on U-Space an automated air traffic management system for drones (also referred as Unmanned Traffic Management System (UTM)). The system is developed in collaboration with AirMap (the leading company for airspace management platforms for drones), senseFly, SITAONAIR and px4 and supported by FOCA. It shall become the first national airspace management system for drones in Europe with the ultimate goal of enabling and unlocking the massive potential of the drone ecosystem. Skyguide seeks to be compliant to the standards defined by SESAR Joint Undertaking. SESAR Joint Undertaking was set up in 2007 and is the mechanism which coordinates and concentrates all EU research and development activities in air traffic management.

The purpose of U-Space is to ensure safe opening of the airspace for a large (and ever increasing) numbers of drone operations in low-level airspace, beyond visual line of sight and congested areas. U-Space is announced to be capable of ensuring the smooth operation of all categories of drones, all types of missions and all drone users in all operating environments. It shall provide not only the framework for routine drone operations, but also an effective interface to manned aviation. U-Space will not be limited to Switzerland, but shall provide the standards to build up a digital unmanned traffic management infrastructure in Europe. It is therefore recognized as pioneer project for air traffic management technology not only in Switzerland, but also in the EU. U-Space is promoted to ensure that all categories of drones and all types of missions can safely take flight in Switzerland’s airspace via sophisticated U-Space services, including:

  • Registration of operator and drone (e-identification and e-registration);
  • Dynamic geo-fencing;
  • Tools for situational awareness;
  • Instant digital airspace authorization;
  • Real-time traffic alerts; and
  • Live drone telemetry.

In a first trial stage, the U-Space platform shall be integrated in the wider skyguide infrastructure. This shall allow for automated flight permits. Based on the SESAR roadmap, U-Space projects will follow a step by step regulatory approach. By 2019, the “Foundation Services” shall be rolled-out, consisting of e-registration, e-identification and geo-fencing. The main objectives of these services are to identify drones and operators and to inform operators about known restricted areas. By 2021 the “Initial Services” shall be launched, referring to an initial set of services that support the safe management of drone operations and a first level of interface and connection with air traffic control and manned aviation.

One of the key challenges of the project is seen in the missing legal framework to date in Switzerland, but also in the EU. The solution to provide local e-identification of the operator and e-registration of the drone is considered the most realistic approach today. U-Space is nevertheless being developed at a fast pace.

Regulatory developments in the EU

The EU is also working on a new regulatory framework for unmanned aircrafts. Until very recently, the competence of the EU was limited to aircrafts with a take-off mass above 150 kg. Civil operation of drones lighter than 150 kg fell within the scope of national regulation authority of each Member State. With the new Regulation EU (2018/1139) on common rules in the field of civil aviation and establishing a European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) which came into force on 11 September 2018 (New Basic Regulation), the European Union became competent to regulate civil operations of all kind of drones independent form their maximum take-off mass. The New Basic Regulation consolidates EASA’s scope to cover the full spectrum of the aviation landscape and reinforces the European aviation system as a whole.

The main highlights of the New Basic Regulation are that rules for unmanned aircraft systems must be proportionate, risk- and performance based. Therefore, the new EASA drone framework is breaking down drone flights into three categories: “open”, “specific”, and “certified” with different safety requirements, proportionate to the risk. Based on the market’s needs, priority has been given to the development of regulations in the “open” and “specific”’ categories. An Opinion of EASA on UAS operations in these two categories was published in February 2018. The Opinion will serve as a basis for the European Commission to adopt concrete regulatory proposals.

The Opinion breaks new ground by combining product legislation and aviation legislation: design requirements for small drones (up to 25 kg) will be implemented by using the well-known CE (“Conformité Européenne”) marking for products brought on the market in Europe. The operator will find in each drone package a consumer information with the “do’s and don’ts” on how to fly a drone without endangering other people. The requirements do not focus on the drone itself, but consider a range of elements such as where the drone is flown (over the sea or over a city center), who is flying the drone (a child or a professional pilot) or what drone is actually being used (how heavy is the drone or what safety features it does have). The proposed approach is recognized as the best way forward to keep drone operations safe.

The “open” category of operations does not require a prior authorization by the competent authority, nor a declaration by the operator, before the operation takes place. Safety is ensured through a combination of operational limitations (i.e. maximum height of 120m), technical requirements for the machine (CE marking) and the competency of the remote pilot (online training / test). Examples of operations that fall into this category are filming and taking photographs, infrastructure inspections, and leisure activities in which the remote pilot keeps the unmanned aircraft in sight at all times.

The “specific” category of operations requires an authorization by the competent authority before the operation takes place. Here, safe operations are guaranteed through a system in which the drone operator is required to carry out an operational risk assessment and put in place the resulting mitigation measures to obtain an authorization to fly the drone. Examples of this category are flights where the operator can no longer see the drone (so-called beyond visual line of sight or BVLOS), flying over populated areas and operations with heavier drones.

The development of the regulation framework for operations in “certified” category is planned for 2018 and 2019.