The latest Challenges of Growth study (https://www.eurocontrol.int/press-releases/challenges-growth-report-now-released) published on 19 June by Eurocontrol says:
“There will be many more unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or ‘drones’ by 2040. Most of these will operate outside current controlled airspace, but this will put pressure to cede parts of current controlled airspace. Within controlled airspace, 2017 saw about 6 flights/day. By 2040, the main effect will be to replace existing operations with ‘optionally piloted’ ones. On top of this transformation, we see growth of about 100 flights/day.”
In 2017 drone flights accounted for just 0.02% of all total flights in controlled airspace. In the agency’s forecasts, commercial and government drones will operate almost entirely outside controlled airspace, with border and maritime patrol unmanned aircraft increasing the UAS numbers in instrument flight rules (IRF) airspace.
“Towards the end of the 2040 horizon, there may be significant numbers of replacement ‘optionally piloted’ aircraft, which do not increase the overall demand, but present regulatory, safety and acceptance challenges if industry are to be able to deliver this new technology and thus continue to improve efficiency,” says the report. “The number of applications that add to rather than replace existing flights, appears much smaller; mainly border and maritime patrol. We estimate around 100 additional flights/day net by 2040 for this, based on our analysis of SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU) work. However, there are up-side risks from new applications such as medium-haul cargo, currently being trialled in China. By way of high-side estimate of the potential impact of this within Europe, we note that a doubling of the current all-cargo flights intra-Europe would be of order of magnitude 1,000 extra flights. We do not believe that more precision than an order of magnitude is possible at this stage. It is clear that there will be a lot more UAS in future, but largely outside current IFR airspace.”
But the agency also identifies that managing increasing numbers of drones in currently uncontrolled
“A significant issue will be the pressure this puts on aviation to cede airspace to new uses. There will be pressure to raise the 150m ceiling for low-level UAS operations, and there will be some airspace need for very high-level, long-endurance UAS during ascent or descent. Military and some civil projects (Loon, Aquila) are already operating here. We conclude from the consultation that industry is far from a consensus or even a broad understanding of the prospects for growth in this area, so more work is needed.”