Drones are a growing business in Europe, delivering services in all environments, including urban areas. Drones’ utilization likely will increase not only in military, business and emergency fields, but, as pointed out in our previous post on AI and drones, they are likely to become a part of our everyday life. Indeed, a number of tasks may be increasingly performed by the new drones: Delivery of goods and e-commerce are just examples of services performed by drones for the benefit of the “common man”.

With a view to unlocking drones’ potentialities, EU institutions launched a number of important research and development projects, mainly coordinated by the SESAR Joint Undertaking group (hereinafter, the SESAR) which was established in 2007 as a public-private partnership to implement the Single European Sky ATM Research Program. Such program is aimed at granting Europe a high-performance infrastructure of air traffic management so as to foster safe and environmentally friendly development of air transport. The SESAR is currently working on, inter alia, the creation of a U-space. As better specified in the study conducted by SESAR in the so-called “U-space Blueprint” the U-space “is a set of new services and specific procedures designed to support safe, efficient and secure access to airspace for large numbers of drones. These services rely on a high level of digitalization and automation of functions, whether they are on board the drone itself, or are part of the ground-based environment.”

U-space will be deployed progressively with an increasing availability of blocks of services and enabling technologies. The services provided through the U-space will in fact evolve as the level of automation of drones’ increases. More specifically, U-space project counts four main milestones: U-space 1, which is aimed at providing space foundation services through e-registration, e-identification and geofencing (U-space 1 is expected to be implemented by 2019); U-space 2 and U-space 3, which are aimed at providing support for the management of drone operations and may include flight planning and flight approval; lastly, U-space 4 is aimed at providing full services, essentially offering integrated interfaces with manned aviation. In U-space 4, a drone operator will be able to drive a drone carrying a small package through the city center; the operator selects a drone supervisor which will support such operator with automated functions and tools and will provide him/her with all the relevant information relating to the planned route as well as other information such as meteorological conditions which may influence the drone’s flight. The drone flying in the U-space 4 environment will be equipped with a “Detect and Avoid System” (also known as DAA system) which allows for avoiding hazards, in order to enable the drone to arrive safely at its destination.

The creation of the U-space is expected to bring substantial benefits for the European society from an economic and social point of view. Indeed, the U-space should also offer appropriate safeguards in terms of privacy, safety, security and environmental protection. More particularly, according to the U-space Blueprint, within the U-space environment, the new types of drones will be equipped with safe and secure settings and, at the same time, authorities will be able to maintain control over airspace by enforcing drones’ registration and identification. This will likely require further legislative regulation to be applied to the new “smart” drones, in addition to the recent EU regulation 2018/1139/EU on drones, as well as new local pieces of legislation which may draw inspiration from AI systems and self-driving cars discipline. However, whether this will occur in the short term is yet to be determined.