Drones will have a far-reaching impact on Europe’s economy. Not only will such high-tech systems cut costs and enable more efficient operations across various sectors, but they will also create opportunities for European enterprises to develop the technologies fuelling this revolution. The European Commission wants to make sure small businesses benefit as this industry takes off.
In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, drones flew over the damaged nuclear power plant to take pictures of the buildings and flooded coastline. Thanks to the data transmitted by these aircraft, the disaster management team was able to successfully cool the overheated reactors and minimise the damage.
This is just one example of the immense potential for civil applications of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), which include not only aircraft but also the various elements that keep them in flight. By utilising cutting-edge technology, RPAS, also referred to as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones, are the next big thing in the aviation industry.
If RPAS’s full potential is unleashed, it will bring significant advantages to European citizens and the European economy as a whole, as missions undertaken for one purpose can also be utilised to generate growth in other areas.
RPAS can be deployed in very diverse sectors: Monitoring volcanic activity, regular inspection of oil and gas pipelines, search-and-rescue missions, homeland security and precision agriculture are just some of the activities for which unmanned aircraft are highly effective.
About 400 RPAS production projects are currently operating throughout Europe, with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain at the forefront. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) represent more than 80 % of the companies involved in the development, manufacturing and exploitation of RPAS. Hundreds of drones that are now being developed, often by start-ups, will be used more and more for concrete applications.
The growth of this new market, both inside and outside the EU, will also foster the emergence of a totally new service industry offering RPAS operations to commercial and state customers. An extensive supply chain is involved in providing a number of enabling technologies that range from flight control, propulsion and communication, to sensors, telemetry and energy.
In the long run, cooperation between large industries, SMEs, research organisations and universities will allow for the expansion of local networks of RPAS expertise and clusters of supply industries.
Preferred for missions that are often thought to be dull, dirty or dangerous for manned aircraft, RPAS reduce human life exposure and are less expensive than manned aircraft. What is more, unmanned aircraft consume less fuel than manned aircraft and reduce CO₂ emissions.
Pilot projects are already contributing a great deal towards cross-country technology and innovation exchange, as well as cooperation between different industries. The European Commission is in an optimal position to facilitate collaboration between RPAS manufacturers and operators from all over Europe and throughout the world.
Acting on a mandate from the European Commission, a group of European stakeholders created a roadmap for the safe integration of civil RPAS into the European aviation system starting in 2016. According to the roadmap, a number of issues need to be addressed before this new technology can be fully exploited.
For instance, RPAS need to gain routine access to airspace in a way that complies with overall aviation safety. They also need to be as safe as all other kinds of aircraft, which means an equivalent set of rules – covering airworthiness, trained staff and adequate operations – has to be put in place.
In addition, the Commission intends to address the potential threats. The increased use of RPAS resulting from their progressive integration into airspace is likely to raise privacy and data protection issues. These concerns could stem from video surveillance and monitoring applications involving collection, retention, use and disclosure of personal data. Adequately addressing these issues is a prerequisite to the development of civil applications of RPAS.
The RPAS industry represents an unparalleled opportunity to spur growth and create jobs. European enterprises stand to gain as this futuristic technology becomes a modern-day reality.
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