Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs - flying robots) are here to stay. Thus far, however, they have mainly been a military phenomenon. Most UAV flights take place in airspace where civil air-traffic control (ATC) is either vestigial or completely absent. If UAVs are ever going to fly much above the countries which - at the moment - develop them and pay for them, this has to change.
But there are serious legal and technical issues standing in the way, especially for regions whose skies are mostly very tightly controlled - such as Europe and large parts of America. In 2003, the assembled military brass of Europe asked Eurocontrol, the European-centred international air-traffic agency*, to develop a set of rules for operating UAVs in civil airspace. That set of rules was released on Monday.
There are two main technical problems. Firstly, the primary method of interaction between ATC and aircraft remains voice communications between controller and pilot, and this is something that UAVs are not suited to.
Then there's the fact that most UAVs have no serious ability to detect other aircraft. Human pilots flying at high speeds often struggle to see other planes in time to do anything useful about them, but by comparison they are a lot better at avoiding potential collisions than UAVs are.
At least in some classes of airspace, in good weather, human pilots can be left to look out for each other rather than having to be baby-sat and deconflicted continually from the ground. This isn't - at the moment, anyway - a safe plan for UAVs.
But these problems need solving today because the military want them solved, and tomorrow because private industry will want them solved. Last month the Teal aerospace forecasting group predicted that the annual UAV market would become a $7bn one over the next decade.
“Safety of all users of the airspace is paramount,” said Eurocontrol's Mike Strong.
“These new specifications ensure that UAV operations will be carried out with the same level of safety as for manned aircraft. Nothing else would be acceptable. The military will be able to undertake the training necessary for the safe conduct of UAV operations at home and abroad.”
They won't be able to do it soon, however. The rules will require various new technologies to be developed. In particular, UAVs which are to fly in normal airspace will be required to have "sense-and-avoid" capability, at least equivalent to a human pilot's "see and avoid".
In some ways, too, the Eurocontrol rules could restrict technology rather than advancing it. The draft regulations assume that every UAV will have a "pilot in command" on the ground somewhere, who will maintain voice communications with ATC just as if he/she was aboard the aircraft.
In many ways, this seems a bit mad in and of itself - in effect, the ground pilot is more or less doing for the robot what ATC traditionally does for pilots. Do we really need two humans on the ground? Perhaps they could work in the same building, and get clearances simply by shouting across a room. Or perhaps there could be pilot call centres - which would no doubt be swiftly outsourced.
Going beyond this, both American and European projects are underway aiming to develop autonomous combat planes, able to fly away without any pilot input at all and blow things up - perhaps even taking on enemy planes too. These true killer robots won't be able to conduct realistic exercises in Eurocontrol airspace.
That said, they presumably won't need a huge amount of training once they've cleared beta testing, so perhaps that doesn't matter.
Essentially, these guidelines are little more than a common sense tie-in of remotely-piloted UAVs to the existing ATC structure using ordinary pilots. As the new technology matures, new issues will arise; not just autonomous planes, but ones operated by non-pilots - not to mention sat-nav-based, possibly automated ATC systems.
Even so, it's an interesting first step. ®
*Eurocontrol isn't part of the European Union. It has a different list of member states (including non-EU ones such as Switzerland and the Ukraine) and is set up under separate international agreements. However, the European Commission is a member of Eurocontrol just as the 38 national governments are.