European drone operations still up in the air

Drones are saving lives in Rwanda, Tanzania and other parts of Africa by slashing the time it takes to deliver blood, vaccines and emergency medical supplies. And with the US currently looking likely to loosen its stranglehold on drone operations in rural areas, we ask, ‘Why is Europe still lagging behind?’


Drones have been used for farming in Japan since the 1980s, but their use in the UK and Europe is fairly recent.

And although drone delivery services are cutting delivery times of life-saving medicines, vaccines, organs and blood in remote regions of Rwanda and Africa - from four hours to an average of half an hour in some places - closer to home, drones are nowhere near to exploiting their potential.

Why? Because strict rules governing civil airspace over Europe mean the continent is lagging behind Africa and the US – which is currently exploring the possibility of loosening their drone regulations - in the race to adopt drone technology.

Regulations governing unmanned aerial vehicles in the bloc vary between countries and EU-wide rules are still being drawn up, so unless they adhere to specific standards, drones are only allowed to fly in segregated airspace to prevent collisions with civilian aircraft.

“Regulators are playing catch-up with a lot of things that are going on in the drone and autonomous vehicle industry,” says Anthony Venetz, managing director of UK-based aviation safety consultancy Across Safety, “and so for regulators, it’s a balancing act between risk and reward.

“They want to have the benefits of this kind of industry because it’s good for the economy, you can do things you couldn’t do before or were too expensive to do before, but you’ve got to balance that against public safety.”

Africa, meanwhile, is ahead of the curve simply because it is less developed - and regulators are keener to experiment with new technology.

Drones undoubtedly have their benefits. They can fly where planes typically can’t – in small, confined spaces. They can hover close to the ground. They do not require a certified human pilot to fly…

It’s really only a matter of time before drones are given the go-ahead on emergency situations across Europe: they are expected to take over medical deliveries at several European hospital sites this year, drone delivery of blood samples is about to be conducted between hospital sites in the Lugano area of Switzerland and one German healthcare institution is preparing for a general drone flight permission for emergency care purposes in Frankfurt.

But, with the risks potentially as great as the rewards, as Venetz notes, the importance of laying the foundations right cannot be overstated.

One of the costs of jumping on the drone bandwagon before our time could be that they end up in the wrong hands… and the implications of that could be too painful to contemplate.

Tonya Stewart

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