Droning On: Toward a Single European Sky

From the Series: Europe in the Balance

To show how commercially available drones present Europeans with contrasting experiences of despair and hope, I offer two examples.

One, on December 19, 2018, everything stopped at London’s Gatwick, the second largest airport in the United Kingdom and one of the busiest in Europe. The chaotic Christmas travel season came to halt as airplanes were stuck for hours and more than one thousand flights were diverted, canceled or delayed, and approximately 140,000 passengers were stranded. No flights would be cleared for takeoff for close to thirty-three hours. The reason: a drone sighting on the runway.

Two, on April 15, 2019, a fire broke out at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris so massive that news outlets called it an “inferno.” As hundreds of firefighters struggled against the blaze for hours, they came to rely heavily on information from drones which provided them with crucial visual data about the foci points of fire and where to best to orient hoses. When the fire was extinguished, Gabriel Plus, the spokesperson for the firefighters of Paris, said: “It is thanks to these drones, to this new technique absolutely essential today, that we were able to make tactical choices to stop this fire at a time when it was potentially occupying the two belfries.”

These incidents happened only a few months apart, and both reflect significant aspects of drone usage in everyday European life. Based on my research on international commercial drone regulations, I argue that while the need for more integrative regulations for consumer drones is a global issue, it has been a particular challenge for the airspace over one of the world’s most important zones, the European Union.

One reason has to do with how the EU is structured. EU law promotes the free circulation of capital, people, and goods across national borders to facilitate political and economic cooperation among its member states. The ideal of friction-free mobility encompasses such circulations not only on the ground but also at sea and across the continent’s airspace. Because of this, objective, centralized, harmonious control of European airspace has become an essential aim in the European Parliament. However, airspace regulation in the EU to date only focuses on facilitating the traffic of passenger and cargo planes, not on consumer drone usage.

The European Commission adopted the Single European Sky (SES) initiative in the early 2000s to optimize civil air traffic in European airspace. The motivation behind this initiative was to develop harmonious air traffic management and navigation services. The ideal of a single European sky is important for the EU not only for member states to overcome the geographical and political borders among them, but also for the efficient planning for crisis management—as witnessed in the cases of Gatwick and Notre Dame (not to mention the large-scale air traffic disruptions that lasted for weeks in 2010 following the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruptions). SES’s operational, technological, supervisory, and institutional goals for efficient coordination of passenger and freight traffic in European airspace are in flux; they have not been consistently implemented. As policymakers and civil aviation authorities work to overcome fragmented regulatory regimes within the EU, the questions of how and to what ends airspace needs to be regulated loom large for them and have been unexpectedly complicated by the rapid proliferation of commercially available drones.

Unmanned aircraft systems, popularly known as drones, entered the public consciousness as secretive, paramilitary tools of extrajudicial assassination in the Middle East with the advent of America’s post-9/11 “Global War on Terror.” While still widely used in the militaries, drones are enjoying a second boom in consumer markets today. Consumer drones are fast becoming as common and affordable as smartphones, driven by similar electro-physical technologies that combine communications, remote sensors, and control.

As commercially available drones get smaller, cheaper, and easier to operate, they have become quotidian objects of daily life—popular Christmas gifts for middle-class parents and kids, for example. Yet, as these “toys” proliferate in the international consumer market, they also push the technological and legal limits of sovereign airspaces and air traffic management systems. Their smallness, durability, affordability, and maneuverability have made them suitable for a variety of commercial, recreational, and social purposes such as aerial imaging, natural resource development, search and rescue, emergency response, transport of medical supplies, wildlife protection, freight delivery, infrastructure maintenance, and crop monitoring. New purposes are still being discovered for drones as they become widely available to small businesses and private individuals that have started to invade low-altitude airspace.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) recently published a technical and operational rulebook to regulate commercial and recreational drone usage in all member states. The member states have until summer 2020 to implement them. This is an important step: As a German aviation lawyer told me, “the legislators are today well aware of the fact that they cannot think about airspace without drones anymore.” Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR), the technological pillar of the SES initiative, considers the integration of civil drones into the European airspace as essential to a unified air traffic management system across European airspace. Such regulations and emphasis on drone integration are not just legislative moves: These are also responses to a global need to integrate drones into legislation and, at the same time, open the possibility for wider use and development of drone technology.

Consumer drones create new risks and opportunities, vertically connecting hitherto unregulated parts of airspace to the everyday experiences of human life on the ground. While instances like drone disruptions at Gatwick trigger security anxieties about unruly consumer drones, the invaluable help firefighters in Paris received from drones during the tragic fire at Notre Dame exemplifies functions that drones can fulfill for humans. Safe, secure, and sustainable integration of consumer drones into established air traffic management systems alongside technical, legal, and social definitions of their presence among humans may enhance their use for the common social good.