EDA’s work in support of the accommodation and integration of large military Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS, or drones) in civil air traffic in non-segregated airspace has just reached a significant milestone when the Agency delivered to its Member States the final findings and recommendations of its study on the ‘Accommodation of MALE-type RPAS: scenarios and safety case’ ordered in 2019.
The initial results of this study - including a risk assessment and an aviation safety case assessment methodology for MALE-type RPAS flying in non-segregated European airspace, alongside manned aviation - had already been presented in 2019. However, at that time, those findings had only been tested through simulations but not under real flight conditions. Since then, two such test flights have been carried out by the French Air Force (FAF) under the auspices of EDA – one in May 2020 and one in December 2021 - and they both contributed to validating the risk analysis done in the Agency’s Accommodation Study.
On 19 May 2020, the French Air Force flew a REAPER RPAS, based in the military airbase of Cognac, in civil air traffic beyond segregated airspace. During this 3-hour flight, several handovers were carried out between civilian air traffic control centres in Bordeaux and Marseille, without any problems. Portions of the cruise were carried out in upper airspace, up to FL 230. The RPAS had no specific onboard equipment such as a detect and avoid system. The result was a genuine success, as General Reutter, the Director of the French Military Authority, confirmed afterwards in a press statement: "With this operational exercise, we can confirm risk analysis under the auspice of the European Defence Agency. We are proud that these results can feed the Guidelines for Accommodations from the EDA and EASA. They will participate in the current working on the part 'Certified' of the ongoing civil drone European regulation and should facilitate the implementation of the European MALE program”.
On 13 December 2021, another test flight was carried out by the French Air Force, this time crossing the French-Spanish border, from Cognac airbase to Spain and back to France. It was the first time that such a MALE-type RPAS flight crossed European borders in non-segregated airspace class A-C. During this flight, several handovers were carried out between civilian and military air traffic control centres in Bordeaux, Madrid, Barcelona, and Marseille. The cruise was carried out in upper airspace, up to FL 230. The RPAS had no specific onboard equipment such as a detect and avoid system. The flight demonstrated the ability of MALE-type RPAS to perform seamless changes from their initial routing and altitude, as requested by the Air Traffic Control. It also showed the benefit of a robust safety analysis, harmonised procedures and a common Concept of Operations for cross-border operations. This flight also illustrated the benefit stemming from the accommodation both for civil and military aviation. Indeed, accommodation provides more flexibility to military RPAS operations while also optimising airlines routes since no segregated airspace need to be circumvented.
Based on the data gathered during the test flights and the safety analysis done in the initial Accommodation Study, a final validation report with a set of recommendations was produced and sent to Member States this week. Among the main recommendations are the following:
- even though the two test flights didn’t identify any problems, it is recommended to repeat and further expand this type of validation flights in the future;
- notwithstanding that the study only refers to the REAPER RPAS (used in both validation flights), it can also help to accommodate other types of MALE RPAS because it delivers a solid basis from which adjustments can be made to accommodate other types of platforms;
- as soon as a MALE RPAS cross-border flight is intended, Member States should initiate a first planning conference involving all military and civil participants to work on the basis of the Concept of Operations (CONOPS) agreed in the study, with the necessary adjustments to national specificities. The CONOPS presented in the study contain all the generic elements to be used: samples of notes to controllers, briefings for the crews, etc;
Member States should immediately start to train civilian air traffic controllers on how to deal with accommodated RPAS.
The hope is now that those recommendations will be taken up by Member States and the relevant European bodies and organisations to foster the accommodation and integration of large military RPAS in civil air traffic in non-segregated airspace. As also mentioned in the recommendations, a necessary step would be to carry out additional test flights to further complement and finetune the findings and recommendations of EDA’s Accommodation Study. This would ideally also include the participation of other Member States as well at the involvement of additional RPAS platforms. Obviously, EDA already offered to support any new collaborative initiative or project in this domain.
More information on the Agency’s work in this domain can be found here.