What’s missing from EASA’s first U-space Easy Access Rules? The business case

By Philip Butterworth-Hayes

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has published the first Easy Access Rules (EAR) for U-space (Regulation (EU) 2021/664). According to EASA: “The EAR for U-space incorporate Regulation (EU) 2021/664, the ‘U-space Regulation’, setting a regulatory framework for the U-space, an airspace defined by certain drone geographical zones, Regulation (EU) 2023/203 on information security, amending the U-space Regulation, and ED Decision 2022/022/R with the acceptable means of compliance (AMC) and guidance material (GM) to the U-space Regulation.”

EAR documents are consolidated versions of EASA rules, “combining EU regulations with EASA certification specifications (CSs), acceptable means of compliance (AMC), and guidance material (GM) in an easy-to-read format with advanced navigation features through links and bookmarks.”

The formal implementation of the U-space regulatory framework took effect on January 26, 2023 with the entry into force of Regulations (EU) 2021/664, (EU) 2021/665, and (EU) 2021/666. But since then, no Member State has certified a U-space service provider nor formally identified where the first U-space ecosystems will be located.  These are multiple differences of opinion between Member States on how and where U-space service information is disseminated and who should host the Common Information Services (CIS) module (if one is needed) – which is frustrating the emergence of a single EU market for complex drone operations which require automated flight authorisations for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), nighttime and over-people flights.

Will this document make it easier and faster for Member States to start certifying U-space services?

It should – but it also reveals in a clearer way the complexities that Member States face when trying to agree U-space implementation policies with their neighbours.

The Easy Access rules underline the range of U-space architectures which can be developed under the U-space regulation.  So, on the one hand: “Member States should ensure that common information services are made available for every U-Space airspace to enable non-discriminatory access to U-space airspace and services for UAS operators, with particular regard to safety. Member States should however be able to designate a single common information service provider to provide the common information services on an exclusive basis in respect of all or some of the U-space airspaces under their responsibility…” but on the other…” In the absence of a single CIS provider, common information is directly exchanged between the relevant operational stakeholders in a distributed communication architecture, whereby each data provider communicates directly with another USSP for sharing information. Each USSP needs to communicate with other data providers. A clear allocation of common information elements between Member States, ATS providers and USSPs would allow data users to find target data quickly and efficiently. In the absence of a single CIS provider, there is no need for additional certification…”

Given the delays and complexities it will be tempting for many Member States to aim for the easiest and quickest way forward: designate the national air navigation service provider (ANSP) as the single CIS provider and leave it to competing U-space services provider to do the job of tactical day-to-day airspace management.

Under these current proposals it is difficult to see a non-ANSP company assume the CIS host role, especially as integration with legacy ATM will be a critical requirement and “to achieve a high level of data exchange and interoperability between the CIS and State services (law enforcement and potentially military authorities), the CIS may need to comply with the national security and defence requirements.”

There are many advantages to giving this role to the national ANSP (or its span-off subsidiary company) but there are some major disadvantages, too, the most important of which is the lack of clear income streams for competing USSPs. To be certified to operate U-space services as a USSP companies must show they “have the appropriate net capital commensurate with the costs and risks associated with the provision of U-space or common information services…the applicant should present a robust business plan that shows that the service provision costs can be covered with the prices that can be achieved on the market.”

But as UAS expert Jonas Stjernberg highlighted in a recent article in UAS Norway on the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority’s plans to allow Avinor to charge for drone flights in control zones: “The fact that you charge for services that increase flight safety is OK. But closing the airspace and demanding payment for access to the control zone, where you have been able to fly for free in the past, is not OK.”

What kind of charges will BVLOS drone operators be prepared to accept – EUR5, EUR10, EUR15 per flight? And how will these be calibrated against the complexities of the flight plan? Until there are some real figures on the table it is difficult to understand how these rules will translate into viable revenues for all concerned.

Under these EASA regulations the drone operator can become a U-space service provider in its own right. But most drone operators will not want to navigate the complex regulatory hoops and hurdles to be certified, especially as the hoops and hurdles have still to be rubber-stamped at the national regulatory level.

There are other decisions that Member States need to make which will have huge implications on the viability of early U-space service implementation.

  • “The acceptable level of safety is defined by Member States, which should consider the inputs from UAS operators and USSPs regarding their needs and capacities. In order to set acceptable levels of safety for the U-space airspace, it is proposed to set safety criteria as per Regulation (EU) 2017/373 considering the singularities and specificities of the different types of risks posed by unmanned traffic in the U-space.”
  • “Besides the four mandatory U-space services, Member States may decide that additional U-space services are needed to support the safe, secure, and efficient conduct of UAS operations in specific volumes of U-space airspace.”
  • Airspace risk: “The role of Member States in this regard is to translate the societal perception into qualitative or quantitative criteria addressing the probability and consequences of occurrences.”

Of course it is not EASA’s responsibility to recommend charges or business plans and the Agency has to steer a narrow line between being too prescriptive on the one hand while giving Member States a solid framework of options in which they can make their choices, on the other. For some Member States, these Easy Access rules will provide some valuable guidance to help speed U-space implementation, but for others it will show in even clearer detail the complexities they face in deciding how and when to introduce U-space.

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