The use of drones (how unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, are commonly called) in military operations has been very criticized in the past years, partly due to the collateral civilian casualties from such operations (close to 300 just in Pakistan in the past years). Nevertheless, the use of drones is here to stay. The US Department of Defense includes as part of its budgetary information an “Aircraft Procurement Plan FY2012-2041” [PDF, 332KB], see in the graphic below how it is planned to almost duplicate the drones in the fleet along the next decade:
The civilian use of drones has been lagging behind these years mainly due to its integration in the air space. To that respect, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced last month an initial plan for integrating unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace by September 2015.
There are plenty of possible civilian applications that have been raised; from monitoring crops, to pipelines, oil rigs, forest fires, photography… to the dispatching of personal packages being announced recently by Amazon (Prime Air). The Economist issue of this week includes an article, “Game of drones“, which estimates that by 2017 there could be up to 10,000 drones flying in the USA and by 2025 the civilian drone market could have a size of up to 82bn$ per year, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
In this general picture Europe has been left behind.
European air forces are still relying on US and Israeli drones (just this week France has received its first 2 MQ-9 Reaper from the USA). That is why I hope that the conclusion at the recent EU Council (see here a post I wrote about it) in relation to the launching of a European Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone programme helps to put an end to that situation and enables Europe and its industry to bridge the gap:
[…] the development of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in the 2020-2025 timeframe: preparations for a programme of a next-generation European Medium Altitude Long Endurance RPAS; the establishment of an RPAS user community among the participating Member States owning and operating these RPAS; close synergies with the European Commission on regulation (for an initial RPAS integration into the European Aviation System by 2016); appropriate funding from 2014 for R&D activities; […]
The bridging of that gap would not only ensure the security of supply of such drones for Europe but would help develop critical technologies to maintain the industrial base, its growth and employment; apart from the fact of being many of such technologies of dual use (as recognised in the EU Council conclusions) they would help Europe to access the market for civilian use of drones.