The commercial market for European drones is growing. According to the “Drone Industry Barometer 2018 — The European Drone Market,” a report from Drone Industry Insights, the top applications are surveying, inspection, and monitoring/surveillance.
The report attributed this growth not “so much to the drone platform itself, but rather the growing application options made possible by larger loads and longer flying times. As a result, for instance, more sensors can be used on drones, gathering even more data and even more precise data.”
Drone Industry Insights said that surveying would grow by 63%, followed by building and infrastructure inspection and then precision agriculture. Other areas of expected demand include construction, police, and emergency services.
The use of European drones for logistics will grow by 10%, according to the report, while intralogistics — the use of drones inside buildings such as warehouses — will grow only 5%, according to the report.
By comparison, PWC estimates the global market size for logistics and infrastructure at $45 billion and energy and utilities at $9.46 billion. It noted that the U.S. loses $169 billion per year because of network failures, so there is a lot of potential for drone inspections.
The European Commission’s “European Drones Outlook Study” predicts 400,000 commercial drones to create 100,000 jobs per year and have a total economic impact of 10 billion Euros ($11.6 billion) by 2050.
Barriers to growth
However, Drone Industry Insights noted that “many potential customers who could use drone technologies to make their workflows much more efficient still have no precise idea about the wide range of possibilities offered by the drone market for the actual working environment.”
In addition, it said that many drone developers and producers aren’t fully aware of potential customers’ needs.
Fragmented politics are another barrier to growth of European drones, but the EU has started to work on unified rules for unmanned aerial systems (UAS).
European drone regulations advance
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) last year proposed regulations for the operation of small drones. The draft regulations received more than 3,700 comments from 215 stakeholders, including industry, national aviation authorities, pilots, and insurance companies.
The agency said that it wants to protect data, privacy, and security. The UAS rules, which the European Parliament passed in June, provide for the safety of other aircraft, as well as structures and people on the ground.
The EASA’s initial proposal included an “open” category for civil drones under 150 kg (330 lb.) that don’t require certification, and a “specific” category for UAS pilots who would need certification. The latter would include beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights.
European regulators have created rules for risk assessment, legitimate areas and altitudes for flight, and CE safety markings.
In addition, the rules would provide standards for drone hardware, noise pollution, and economic incentives. EU member nations must now approve the regulations, which the agency is still working to refine.
Dutch influence on European drone rules
While the EU was considering its rules, the Dutch parliament held a hearing at which 20 representatives from the private sector and the government testified on drone policies.
Fourteen organizations also submitted a position paper. Questions during the hearing suggested that the members of parliament favor restrictions on autonomous and night flights.
European drone industry proponents said that current no-fly zones are too restrictive, that the registration process is too difficult and slow, and that allowed flight heights and distances are not far enough.
The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, and much of the airspace around Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is restricted.
The Netherlands already has about 100,000 recreational drone users and 800 professional operators, doubling since 2017. Recreational drones do not require registration.
Professional drone operators need licenses. For drones between 0 and 150 kg, they need an RPAS Operation Certificate (ROC). There are two categories:
- ROC light — This license is for operators of drones up to 4 kg (10 lb.). There are currently 70 people with an ROC-Light license, which limits users in terms of flight altitude and distance.
- ROC — This license requires much tougher training and examination but has fewer restrictions. At the start of 2018, 32 companies had ROC licenses.
Most professional licensees use their drones for film/media, agriculture, research, offshore and industrial purposes.
As can be expected, law enforcement agencies such as the National Police, aviation and public area agencies like the Military Airspace Authority (Dutch Aviation Group), and the ministry of Public Space and Transport Inspection are strongly in favor of tight regulation.
A Military Aviation Authority spokesperson suggested during the hearing that drones should be equipped with an option to be switched off by someone other than the operator.
DroneWatch specifically proposes that ROC Light license holders be allowed to fly up to 120 m (400 ft.) high. The current maximum is 50 m (167 ft.). IT has also demanded that the 100 m (330 ft.) horizontal distance limit be removed.
The Netherlands Aerospace Center (NLR), an independent think tank, emphasizes economic opportunities for which it said experiments are necessary.
The incredible edible drone
Not all European drone developments are about wrangling over regulations. Nigel Gifford, owner of Windhorse Aerospace, thought that drones would be useful for delivering food to the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo. However, he realized that such drones would likely be lost.
So his U.K.-based company developed the Pouncer, a disposable autonomous glider whose wings include edible materials. The drone has a wood frame that could be used to build fires, and it includes containers for foodstuffs.
The intent is for the Pouncer to be dropped by aircraft such as a C-130 Hercules from a safe distance, 10,000 feet (3 km) high and 22 miles (35 km) away. The glider’s simple navigation system enables it to land within 23 feet (7 m) of a target.
Gifford acknowledged that, with a 10-ft. (3 m) wingspan, the Pouncer could be an easy target, but it would still reduce the risk of casualty.
For a single-use load of 110 lb. (50 kg), the drone would cost about $705 (£500), or $4 per pound of usable goods.
By contrast, delivery by truck, including staff costs and truck maintenance, is $1 to $2 per pound.
According to Gifford, development of the drone will take another year.