Amazon And Google Delivery Drones Will Likely Fly In Europe First

Recent developments in European aviation regulations mean that innovators like Amazon, Google and DHL will likely find a more permissive environment in Europe than in America. That environment makes it increasingly likely that Amazon and their competitor’s first delivery drone flights will be taking place in Europe, not in America.

Europe’s claim to drone innovation comes as the EASA (Europe’s version of the FAA) released a new policy framework for dealing with drones. The agency has decided to treat drones as their own category of aircraft, rather than trying to squeeze them into the framework for manned aviation.

This doesn’t happen by accident, global innovation arbitrage is underway. Europe has decided to embrace innovation, as evidenced by the “Riga Declaration On Remotely Piloted Aircraft (Drones).” In that declaration high-level opinion leaders from EU Member States and institutions, as well as international aviation organizations and members of aviation industry, stated:

Today Europe is taking a decisive step towards the future of aviation. The European aviation community gathered in Riga to exchange views on how, and under which conditions, drones can help create promising new opportunities in Europe, offering sustainable jobs and new prospects for growth both for the manufacturing industry and for future users of drones in all sectors of society. Drones offer new services and applications going beyond traditional aviation and offer the promise to perform existing services in a more affordable and environmentally friendly way. They are a truly transformational technology.

The aviation community at Riga established guiding principles for regulators. They focused on the need for regulators to treat drones as new types of aircraft with proportionate rules based on the risk of each operation and urged regulators to quickly create rules to value innovation and allow for drone services to be developed immediately. Those principles in the Riga Declaration are clearly reflected in the EASA’s regulatory framework.

What does this mean for Amazon, Google, DHL and other drone delivery services? Well, the new regulatory framework means that these innovators will have a clear path towards flying in Europe. They can plan and design their products to address safety concerns, rather than plan around arbitrary rules based on the last century’s aviation technology. That’s important for research and development because they can now innovate with an eye toward performance, rather than developing technology to meet a one-size-fits-all regulatory box.

This is made possible because the EASA’s new regulatory framework creates three categories of operations, and delivery drones squarely fit into the middle category, known as “specific.”

Specific operations are, in part:

  • Those operations that pose significant aviation risks to persons on the ground or which involve sharing airspace.
  • Operations in this category require an assessment of each aviation risk, and mitigation steps that are agreed to with aviation authorities prior to the operation.
  • The minimum level of safety for airworthiness will be based on the results of a safety risk assessment. That assessment may allow compliance with industry standards to satisfy the necessary mitigation of risks, or it may require specific limitations on the operations, special qualifications for the personnel, or other considerations. In some risk situations, the drone itself may need to be certified, or specific safety devices may be required by the approval authority.
  • The airworthiness assessment is closely linked to the operational environment, thus operations close to crowds could be acceptable when the vehicle has some additional functionality (e.g. automatic loss of link procedures, impact energy limiting devices, etc.).

This regulatory framework gives Amazon, Google, and DHL room to plan. They can build sophisticated platforms with sense and avoid capabilities, ADS-B, redundant hardware, etc. Companies are already creating these types of systems. I’ve advised a company called Olaeris whose Aeva drone sends and receives ADS-B, uses Lidar for sense and avoid, features a 360 degree HD pilot view with ADSB overlay, uses a 12-channel scramble encrypted communications link, has a self aware control system that monitors all on board systems, features VHF airband to communicate and cooperate with Air Traffic Control and features multi-redundant backups to all flight sensors, subsystems and equipment.

I’m certain drone innovators can build systems that address safety concerns, and in fact we may someday see the day where unmanned aircraft are safer than manned aircraft. The EASA has signaled that technological solutions to safety problems are welcome in Europe, so long as a risk assessment is done and operators can prove they’ve mitigated safety risks.

Granted, the path to that future is a challenging technical problem, but what EASA has done is removed arbitrary regulatory hurdles, allowing engineers to do what they do best — design and innovate. Europe is not Pollyannaish, they recognize that integration of drones will present challenges. Delivery drones in particular are a very different type of operation than those which take place today. In their words:

today flying a single drone in non-segregated airspace with cooperative aircraft can be done with appropriate coordination and special procedures, operation of several of them possibly with non-cooperative aircraft will be much more complicated and will require additional measures. The concept of operations will need to be further developed to address the issues related to operations of fleet of drones in the non-segregated airspace. These operations of fleet of drones will pose new challenges not yet explored with manned aircraft operations.

To meet those challenges requires innovators to develop new detect & avoid capabilities, new ways of dealing with airspace and airport access, command & control communications systems development, analysis of human factors, and more research into autonomy.

European regulators have not run from this challenge, and instead have embraced it. This means that when Amazon, Google and DHL drones are proven safe, the regulatory environment in Europe will be ready to welcome them into European airspace.

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