In March 2021, EASA’s Committee for the application of common safety rules in the field of civil aviation approved the proposed EU ‘U-space’ regulatory package. This legislative package aims at allowing routine drone operations in low level airspace and in urban area. It is considered a key enabler for delivery drones, while paving the way towards urban air mobility.
‘U-space’ concerns the services and the specific procedures designed to support safe, efficient and secure access to airspace for drones’ operations, whereby it is the intention to guarantee at all times the necessary physical distance between drones and other aircraft. U-Space technology should further allow access for the drones to new volumes of airspace (urban, suburban, rural).
The U-space technology and proposed regulation deeply rely on extensive digitalization and automation functions (e.g. automatic detection of unauthorized drone flights, sharing of information between the different airspace users, online requests of drone flights authorizations).
The draft U-space regulation refers to the two already existing EU delegated and implementing regulations on drones and which have established a first set of detailed safety provisions for the harmonised operation of UAS (unmanned aircraft systems), and minimum technical requirements for UAS.
The proposed legislative framework
The draft Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) on a regulatory framework for a U-space, which together with two other proposed regulations forms “the package”, defines the roles and the responsibilities of the different stakeholders involved:
- The Member States will be responsible for designating the geographical zones where the drone operations will be allowed to take place with the support of U-space services. The Member States should remain fully competent to decide to which extent their national airspace should be open to the drones’ operations, or restricted.
- The ‘U-space service providers’ (USSP) are referred to as newly created organisations that are to be certified to provide U-space service, which may be in one or more Member States. They will have to provide - at least - four mandatory U-space services: geo-awareness, traffic information, flight authorisation and network identification. Reference is made to EASA as the certifying authority in case one USSP wishes to provide service across the EU (pan-European service).
- Drone operators should have non-discriminatory access to all U-space service providers in the Union. They will have to establish a contract with one certified USSP of their choice and request their flight authorisation at least 5 minutes prior to estimated take-off time. They will need to hold a certificate and will have to operate in accordance with the regulations of the package.
- Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) will continue to remain responsible for the provision of air traffic management (ATM) services to manned aircraft. They will have to establish arrangements with USSP’s to ensure adequate coordination and exchange of information.
- Manned aviation finally also will have to adapt and comply with those provisions from the package that apply to them.
The proposed regulations do not apply to (i) drones owned and operated by public entities (e.g. military, customs, police, etc.); (ii) to privately-built drones less than 250g and with a maximum speed of less than 19m/s; (iii) to very small drones marked as ‘class CO’; and (iv) to drones used in the framework of model aircraft clubs and associations.
Privacy and data protection
Because of the societal concerns flowing from the use of drones, the U-space package takes into consideration privacy concerns of the citizens. The establishment and access to the U-space should be conditional to privacy requirements. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will apply to the drone pilots and the drone operators as soon as personal data are processed at the occasion of the flight. A Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) may be necessary. Anonymization or pseudonymization techniques may be required or advisable.
Further safety regulation is being worked on. It is expected that ‘a Notice of Proposed Amendment (NPA)’ will be published by EASA in December 2021.
The draft implementing rules will then undoubtedly be made subject to public consultation, during 1 to 3 months, before the European Commission will adopt them. Entry into force is expected for January 2023.
In parallel to the rulemaking activities, EASA has launched a study on the societal acceptance of urban air mobility (UAM) in six (6) European cities. The results will be presented this summer at the European Parliament.