Back to Academy website >>

Summary of initial conclusions

The Air and Space Academy (AAE) organised together with the French Aerospace Society (3AF) a 2-day conference on the theme “Present and future of Civilian RPAS”. This event, which took place on 13-14 Nov 2014, under the sponsorship of the French civil aviation directorate (DGAC), gathered 280 people in Paris, with 90 people in Toulouse through video transmission. Among them were a large number of manufacturers, operators, end users, research organisations, public authorities and students. The European and American civil aviation authorities (EASA and FAA) were also represented. Full proceedings of the conference, including conclusions and recommendations, will be published.

1. Civilian RPAS market

The current boom in the area of civilian drones, or RPAS (ICAO designation for Remotely Piloted Air Systems), is creating a new, dynamic industrial sector, with a high potential for generating growth and creating jobs, especially for medium, small and micro businesses.

The related market – 90% of which is made up of video for the moment – is nonetheless evolving towards the supply of sophisticated data and diagnostic means for a variety of areas such as:

  • large network surveillance (technical and security monitoring of railways, oil and gas pipelines, power lines ...)
  • agriculture and environment
  • mapping and monitoring of construction sites, quarries, mines, ...
  • diagnosis of the state of buildings, infrastructures and architectural sites.

Due to their lightness, flexibility and ease of operation, RPAS provide higher performance and quality than current means (helicopters, light aircraft, satellites), obtaining more and better results, often at less expense. They can thus effectively replace the latter or provide an alternative or a complementary solution.

Customers' expectations are centred on the final result of the whole data acquisition and processing chain. The goal is to produce data capable of generating automatic diagnoses.  

The market therefore essentially consists of supplying data and services. While most enthusiasts are primarily concerned with the characteristics of the flying vehicles, the end customers are mainly interested in processed results that can exploited immediately and effectively. The development and economic success of RPAS will depend on their capacity to meet this demand.

The price of services is not yet stable due to a lack of data for reliably calculating return on investment.

In France this sector employs about 3,000 people, mostly in medium, small and micro enterprises, with a turnover estimated at between 50 and 100 million euros (around €500 million in Europe?) and a strong growth of 25-30% per year. These figures are well below those quoted for the US despite the ongoing ban on commercial RPAS operations.

There is also an export market in South America, Africa and Asia, where flying regulations are less strict, even non-existent.

Nevertheless profit margins remain low, clients are reluctant to sign multi-year contracts and investors are cautious, with shares of at most a few million euros per company. So this is still a very young, fragile sector, exposed to international competition but lacking the necessary funding to achieve a solid industrial footing.

For the moment France would seem to have a slight edge, but this advantage remains tenuous in the face of heavy investment from certain countries (US ...).

2. Barriers to development

The main obstacles to development are already known. They were highlighted in two surveys, one conducted by the European Commission in October 2014 and the other prior to the conference in Sept/Oct. 201, which put forward the following solutions:

  • In order to ensure safety, regulations must be developed and harmonised in Europe so that they cover all RPAS, from the smallest to the largest (including government surveillance drones). In France the only existing decrees date back to 2012 and cover four scenarios (S1 to S4). These apply to very light RPAS (<25 kg), only one of which may exceed a radius of 1 km. Nevertheless it is important that these initial regulations, which should be completed and enhanced, remain flexible, adaptable and proportionate to the risks arising from the weight + scenario combination. Regulations must be capable of evolving in order to accompany technological development without being too rigid.
  • Feedback from experience: this is essential in order to establish a climate of confidence (authority, customer, insurance companies, investors). A culture of feedback from experience and procedures must be developed within the RPAS community, by both operators and manufacturers.
  • The safety aspect is crucial: major fatal accidents would put a long-lasting brake on the sector's expansion.
  • Security must be ensured and any offenders punished.
  • Privacy must be respected. 
  • Responsibilities as regards privacy, security (terrorist attack) and safety (accident) must be clear, which means defining rules and a legal framework defining offences and the penalties incurred. Insurance premiums must also be set proportionately to risks.

3. Factors of progress

3.1 On a level of state and international bodies

  • In France, the 2012 decrees must be completed and should authorise wider flight envelopes ("further, higher, heavier") for certain scenarios. Prefectoral authorisations should be valid for a certain duration (year). Regional civil aviation safety directorates (DSAC in France) must allow operators to work rapidly with pre-approved standard protocols. The CNIL (French Commission on Informatics and Liberty) should define how best to keep the public informed and deal with claims. Temporary or permanent exports of French civilian RPAS must also be promoted.
  • In Europe, the European Commission has defined a strategy in the form of a roadmap aimed at addressing the different barriers to development. This roadmap includes:
  • insertion into airspace, including the necessary R & D support to develop contributing technologies
  • a study on civil liability and insurances
  • a study into respect for privacy and data protection
  • support to SMEs, by means of an information campaign to all players.

Work on regulations is progressing within the JARUS (Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems) international working groups, with US participation. JARUS will communicate its recommendations to EASA and Eurocontrol so that they can then establish regulations.

  • The FAA has received instructions from the US authorities to draw up a roadmap, with the priority goal of establishing a regulation by late 2014 enabling the flight of small RPAS (weighing less than 25 kg). Six testing sites, funded by universities and the private sector, were set up mid-2014 and will spend about 20 months testing new technologies for protecting and respecting privacy. Good practices will be published governing smaller models. NB: hundreds (or even thousands) of illegal operators are active in the US.
  • ICAO has created a RPAS panel to review and develop new standards and best practices for RPAS integration in terms of airworthiness, "command and control", the frequency spectrum, "sense and avoid", the qualification of remote operators (licenses), operations and integration into air traffic. ICAO should also embark on the creation of a legal framework specific to RPAS.

3.2 On a techno-economic level

  • Progress expected in the miniaturisation of electronic equipment will be accompanied by a sharp drop in prices resulting from a massive use for mobile telephone networks (GPS, 4G, LiPo batteries,...).
  • For end customers' needs to be met, speed of access must be improved to provide more accurate data, requiring progress in both hard- and software.
  • R&D into more autonomous systems and optimisation of the human-machine interface will impact the design of RPAS systems.
  • Effective "sense & avoid" sensors must be developed and integrated in order to meet safety requirements.
  • Other new sensors tailored to needs must be integrated: for example to edit and correct images, superimpose different spectral bands,…
  • Data processing, although specific to each type of aerial mission, should be brought in line with standard practices in the aeronautics, space and automobile sectors, particularly in terms of the integration of sensors, the image processing chain and data fusion.
  • A complementarity of resources should be sought between RPAS, light aircraft, helicopters and satellites in order to obtain a broader information base and more accurate diagnoses enabling greater predictive or preventive services.

3.3 On a level of training

  • Training of remote operators should be improved by developing:
  • theoretical training including aspects specific to RPAS compared to other aircraft (ULM, planes, helicopters, ...)
  • practical training for different scenarios, based on small RPAS in visual flight, but also suited to RPAS flown out of visual range

and by adding a maintenance training component.

4. Some further avenues

  • Implement "EC" labelling of all RPAS sold as toys and models
  • Set up wide-ranging information campaigns to keep the public informed of "best practices" for flying models
  • In order to identify planned (or past) RPAS flights, create an open database of flight plans on the Internet
  • Organise and formalise feedback from experience, by publishing accident and incident reports and related statistics on the Internet for instance
  • Register (?) or require some type of identification code in order to locate the remote operator in the event of an accident
  • Encourage low-cost solutions for incorporating a tracking transmitter.
  • ……

Download in PDF


Logo AAE

All rights reserved AAE (c) 2010 - Legal mentions - Contact webmaster

AAE - Ancien observatoire de Jolimont - BP 75825 - 31505 Toulouse cedex 05 - France

Logo 3AF