UK law makers foresee cargo drones

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Drones carrying up to 150 kilogrammes of cargo and costing around £500,000 ($765,000) could be realised, a UK House of Lords’ European Union (EU) Committee report says.

The UK’s upper legislative chamber, the House of Lords, and its EU committee, has been scrutinising the European Commission’s (EC) proposals for the civilian use of drones. The EC has been developing a regulatory framework for a European drone industry. The framework includes safety, security, privacy and liability. The EC estimates that by 2025 drones could be 10 per cent of  the European aviation market.

The Lords report says, a British Airline Pilots Association’s (BALPA) study found that large cargo drones can potentially remain airborne for days and travel thousands of kilometres for transporting cargo. The International Civil Aviation Organization calls drones, remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS). The Lords’ report notes: “A cargo RPAS would not require life support equipment, such as pressurisation and air conditioning, catering, seating, windows or even toilets, as are found in manned cargo aircraft. Such an unmanned aircraft would thus be lighter, cheaper to run, more efficient and easier to build, than its manned equivalent.”

The BALPA report explains that cargo RPAS do not exist yet because technologies still need to be developed. For example, the delivery of a light parcel by a small RPAS in a town or city would require it to fly beyond the visual line of sight of the pilot and avoid objects such as trees, lamp posts and people autonomously. The report adds that to guarantee the safety of the operation; the control link between the RPAS carrying the parcel and the pilot would have to be secure, as a loss in connection could result in an accident.

The Lords’ committee members support plans to harmonise safety rules across the EU, but argue for flexibility in national rules for RPAS. They also urge the UK government and EC to adopt measures to improve safety and the enforceability of existing laws.

Committee chairman, Baroness O’Cathain, says ways to manage and keep track of drone traffic must be found, and calls for a database of drone flights that can be accessed from a smartphone app.

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