The importance of the European Union’s U-space drone regulation

By Philip Butterworth-Hayes

On 26 January 2023 the European Union’s U-space regulation came into effect.  EU Member States will now identify U-space airspace areas where drones will be able to fly increasingly complex operations – beyond visual line of sight, over people, autonomously and at night – supported by air traffic services provided by certified U-space service providers (USSP).  USSPs will coordinate drone operations with the air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and operational data exchanges between USSPs, ANSPs and drone operators will be ensured by the Common Information Service Provider (CISP).

This is a considerable achievement for the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which in December published the latest draft of Acceptable Means of Compliance and Guidance Material (AMC/GM), which gave the granularity of detail required for many (but not all) EU states to start planning the first designations of U-space areas. Of course, there are still many issues outstanding – not the least are when and how the first USSPs will be certified and what provisions there are for drones flying outside U-space areas. After all, U-space only makes sense in area of high traffic, with multiple drone operations creating a risk of collision. But for drone operators some of the most economically attractive business cases are missions to sparsely populated areas where U-space provisions might be economically unviable.  And there are still some holes in the concept of operations for U-space provision of services for urban operations.

But there is now clear blue water between Europe and the USA on UAS traffic management regulations, which will give EU-based drone operators an advantage in accelerating BVLOS-based multiple drone operations. The difference between the continents is not one of timescale but of clarity. So it is now up to EU member states to grasp this opportunity quickly and begin designating U-space areas, as soon as it becomes clear how service providers can be certified.

The EU U-space regulation is important for more than just drone and urban eVTOL operators. It has repercussions throughout the aviation value chain. It marks a radical shift away from human-centric airspace management based on legacy equipment and rigid formal arrangements between states and state-controlled air navigation service providers (ANSPs) delegated to manage this traffic to an entirely different way of working.  U-space will rely on digitalisation, agile engineering, automation, cross-border competitive tendering and a completely different way of regulation. Traditional ANSPs should be worried. Most are stuck in a pre-digital age where they have to keep aircraft safely separated and own, operate and maintain vast quantities of obsolete CNS/ATM systems which cannot easily adapt to changing traffic patterns or constantly evolving communications and surveillance technologies. U-space is three generations ahead of this way of working.

Potential USSPs meeting at the European Network of U-space Stakeholders Meeting in Helsinki on 26 January have had therefore much to celebrate, as well as question. In these difficult times, even small steps of progress are welcome and the adoption of the U-space regulation represents a significant step into the digital future for more than just drone operators.

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