PARIS — The European Defence Agency (EDA) expects to launch a program this autumn designed to focus investment in unmanned aircraft systems by several European nations as part of a longer-term effort being undertaken with the European Space Agency (), EDA Chief Executive Alexander Weis said.
Weis said some forecasts show a European unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) market reaching $10 billion in the next 10 years, and the question is whether it is European countries or competitors from the United States, Israel or elsewhere that will reap the benefits.
The 18-nation ESA is coming at the UAS issue from the satellite end through its Integrated Applications Program, which seeks to spur use of satellite systems for services requiring telecommunications, navigation and Earth observation data.
During a July 1 conference in Brussels, Belgium, organized by EDA and the European Commission, Weis said medium-altitude, long-endurance vehicles appear to show the most promise. Leaders in this market include the Predator vehicle built by General Atomics of the United States and Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron.
“The target is clear: We want to address the remaining technological challenges for UAS air traffic insertion as well as exploitation of their capabilities to support seamless flying of UAS in Europe by 2015,” Weis said during the meeting.
The early emphasis of EDA is harmonizing development efforts among the 27 European Union nations to avoid duplication. Another priority is to help ensure regulatory approval for the use of UAS vehicles in civil airspace, where for safety reasons they are now prohibited.
EDA is funding a program called SIGAT — or Study on Military Spectrum Requirements for the Insertion of UAS into General Air Traffic — which is preparing a European proposal that radio spectrum be reserved for UAS during the next meeting of global frequency regulators, the World Radiocommunication Conference, scheduled for 2012.
Carving out dedicated spectrum for UAS use is viewed as one of the prerequisites to persuading civil aviation authorities to permit UAS flights in civilian airspace.
“The European Commission is committed to embrace European actions to favor unmanned aircraft systems’ insertion in European airspace within a reasonable time frame,” said Siim Kallas, the European Commission’s vice president, responsible for transport.
The July 1 conference included numerous assessments by European government authorities on future applications for UAS platforms such as monitoring of concentrations of volcanic ash in the atmosphere, tracking of environmental hazards, border control and surveillance of the Arctic.
Nancy Graham, director of the air navigation bureau of the International Civil Aviation Organization, said her organization in September will distribute an assessment of legal and operational issues relating to UAS operation in civil airspace.
Magali Vaissiere, ESA’s director of telecommunications and integrated applications programs, said UAS craft are particularly well suited for so-called 3D operations — dull, dirty or dangerous. The eruption of a volcano in Iceland in April and May shut down most of Europe’s air traffic and caused some $1.5 billion in losses for commercial airlines as 100,000 flights were canceled despite the absence of clear information on ash concentrations at flight altitudes.
Alain Ratier of the French meteorological service, Meteo France, said a UAS craft would fill in the gap between what Earth observation satellites see from above and what in-situ sensors see from the ground. Detailed assessments of ash concentrations at flight altitudes were missing during last spring’s air traffic shutdown, he said.
Beyond environment-related applications are “multiple potential users” for security-related fields, including railway security, border patrol and civil protection, said Achim Friedl of the German Directorate-General of Federal Police, part of the Ministry of the Interior. Current UAS use in Germany is limited to platforms weighing less than 5 kilograms, which must remain in line-of-sight contact with their controllers and are permitted only in low-population areas and at altitudes lower than what is permitted for civil aviation.
NASA has begun using two types of UAS vehicles for climate and environmental observation.
Michael Freilich, director of Earth science at NASA, said the agency flies Global Hawk and the smaller SIERRA UAS platforms as part of its Earth Science Pathfinder program. SIERRA, or Science Instrumentation Evaluation Remote Research Aircraft, was developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
Freilich said that in a series of flights this spring, a Northrop Grumman Global Hawk logged more than 75 hours of environment-monitoring flight time on routes off the West Coast of the United States and into Alaska at altitudes of up to 19,800 meters.