2013 11 22 NYT Europe at Ease With Eyes in the Sky – NYTimes.com
Europe at Ease With Eyes in the Sky
GROSSMITTEL, Austria — Deep within a secluded Austrian military training ground here, an odd, shark-shaped machine hovered just above a stand of windswept pines.
Guided by the keystrokes and joystick commands of a pair of pilots in a nearby trailer, the unmanned helicopter, about the size of a large motorcycle, traced a precise path, aiming its high-definition camera over an expanse of grassland. The throbbing of its main rotor seemed to go unnoticed by the wild deer that roam the site, where the Austro-Hungarian army first experimented with missiles two centuries ago.
Despite the military setting for the demonstration flight, this flying drone — called a Camcopter S-100 — is not meant for monitoring combat zones or tracking terrorists. Instead, its Austrian maker, Schiebel Aircraft, is finding a market among civilian customers in industries like oil and gas, electric utilities, mining, shipping and agriculture. Schiebel is one of more than 400 small and midsize European companies developing new types of unmanned aerial vehicles, or U.A.V.’s, most of them for civilian uses. It has sold more than 150 of its drones to customers worldwide.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the stigma of military drones and European sensitivities to electronic surveillance — not to mention serious safety concerns — European aviation officials so far seem less likely to impede development of the civilian drone industry than regulators in the United States.
In Washington, the Federal Aviation Administration has effectively grounded development of commercial drones, pending the planned publication of rules expected early next year for licensing them and integrating them into civilian airspace starting in 2015.
While the European Union is also trying to map out such rules, individual countries are taking their own approaches to civilian U.A.V.’s, in many cases even encouraging their development. That is a reason that nearly 1,000 unmanned vehicles are currently authorized to fly commercially in and around a dozen European countries. They are led by Britain, France and Germany, which have also provided funding for research and have, as in the case of Austria and Schiebel, made military facilities available to companies for flight testing.
“Five years ago, everybody was convinced that defense was going to be 80 percent or more of the market” for remotely piloted aerial systems, said Chris Day, a top engineer at Schiebel, which will produce about three dozen Camcopter drones this year at a factory in nearby Wiener Neustadt. “I have a fair amount of confidence today that within the next five years, civil will overtake the military in terms of new users.”
The rush to develop the technology, however, has also raised safety concerns, particularly in light of some recent, well-publicized accidents. Last spring, a U.A.V. being used to film parts of an episode of the British television show “The X Factor” lost control while flying over central London and tumbled into the Thames. Two years ago, a surveillance drone used by the police in Merseyside, in northwest England, crashed during a training mission and was not replaced.
Schiebel’s drones, for example, sell for $3 million to $4 million, depending on the type of cameras or sensors they carry, a lot less than the $10 million or more for weaponized drones for the military. And some of the new civilian drones being developed by others are designed to sell for $100,000 or less.
The declining cost and widening availability of sophisticated components like high-definition cameras and infrared sensors continues to lower the business barriers for smaller companies looking to break into an international market — a field that analysts and industry groups say could reach more than $11 billion a year by 2025 and might create as many as 100,000 highly skilled jobs worldwide over the next decade.
An estimated one-third of all new U.A.V. systems in development are being made in Europe. Of those, about 80 percent are being developed either exclusively or primarily for civilian purposes, according to UVS International, an independent consulting firm in Paris.
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“The whole thing is being driven by the nonmilitary applications,” said Peter van Blyenburgh, president of UVS International. “There’s been a huge profusion of small companies coming out of the woodwork.”
The burst of activity in Europe comes as a similar-size crop of American start-ups — equally eager to market their remote-controlled wares — face new regulatory hurdles at home.
As American aviation officials review proposals to create as many as a half-dozen commercial U.A.V. test sites in the country, their decision has been delayed by privacy groups, who worry about the potential for drones to eavesdrop on the public in all sorts of new ways, not to mention the safety hazards posed by new swarms of flying hardware.
European regulators, too, are devising a uniform set of guidelines for the safe operation of unmanned systems in their skies, as well as rules governing the use of the data they collect. In June, the European Commission, the Brussels-based administrative arm of the European Union, published a “road map” that aims to gradually open the skies of the 28-member bloc to remotely piloted aircraft starting in 2016.
But unlike the United States, where Congress and the F.A.A. are the ultimate arbiters of what types of vehicles are allowed to fly and where, the reach of Brussels has been limited. Drones weighing less than 150 kilograms, or about 330 pounds, are not subject to oversight by the European Aviation Safety Agency; individual member states have been free to set their own rules and authorization procedures. Most of the U.A.V.’s now flying in Europe weigh less than 70 pounds — no bigger than a large microwave oven — and fly at altitudes below 1,000 feet, well away from urban areas and airports used by conventional aircraft.
Schiebel, founded 60 years ago as a maker of mine and metal detectors, began experimenting with U.A.V. technology in the mid-1990s but did not sell its first Camcopter, which weighs 242 pounds, until 2005. The company now employs 200 people.
Mr. Day, 54, joined the company a year ago, after three decades in the British military and later at the Thales Group of France, working on large unmanned systems like the Watchkeeper, which is used by the British military for surveillance and intelligence gathering.
Schiebel’s first paying customers were governments and militaries in the Middle East, which use the drones for surveillance and patrolling borders, harbors and territorial waters. Schiebel has since diversified, with just 30 percent of new business coming from such clients. Schiebel’s civilian customers include large farmers in Brazil, the Russian Coast Guard, and Transpower, the state-owned operator of New Zealand’s electricity grid.
The company is still trying to find buyers in Europe, though. Mr. Day conceded that the relatively high cost of its machines still put such technology out of reach for many smaller users.
“For them, the cost has to be significantly lower than a manned aircraft alternative,” he said. “Otherwise, there’s no market.”
Seeking to develop that low-cost niche, Cyberhawk Innovations, based in Livingston, Scotland, started in 2008 as an aerial inspection and surveying company specializing in the oil and gas industries.
The company uses a souped-up version of the same multirotor drones favored by hobbyist fliers, selling them for $15,000 to $30,000 each to perform scheduled monitoring of offshore oil and gas platforms for leaks and structural problems — work that has typically been done by human inspectors rappelling by rope from towering derricks. About 50 percent of the company’s clients are in Europe, including energy giants like BP, Shell, Statoil and Total.
Malcolm Connolly, Cyberhawk’s 34-year-old founder and a former rope-access rig inspector, said he had been inspired by seeing remote-controlled submarines used to inspect the underwater platform structures. “It is a natural idea after you see that,” he said. “The biggest driver is industrial safety. The other is saving money.”
Because certain parts of an oil or gas platform must be shut down during inspections, any time spent offline involves lost revenue.
By deploying a U.A.V., Cyberhawk can reduce a weeklong shutdown to just three or four days, Mr. Connolly said, potentially saving his clients tens of millions of dollars.
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Industry executives and analysts said the applications offered by companies like Schiebel and Cyberhawk represent the easy, early targets for up-and-coming U.A.V. companies. But a recent European Commission study said the technology had the potential to create new markets “in the same way the iPad created an entirely new and unpredicted market for mobile data services.”
Of course, mobile devices do not fly around overhead the way drones do, which is why critics are less enthusiastic.
Chris Cole, an activist who runs the website Drone Wars UK, said the reliability of even the most mature U.A.V. systems operating in war zones was unacceptably low for use in Europe’s crowded civilian skies. He said Drone Wars had verified more than 100 crashes since 2008 of large combat and reconnaissance drones, like the General Atomics Predator or the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk, from an active military fleet of about 6,000 U.A.V.’s.
“The smaller ones crash so often it’s even harder to track,” Mr. Cole said.
European officials also acknowledged that so far there has been little public debate about the effects on privacy and civil liberties of so many new platforms for aerial data and image gathering. But it may still be ahead.
“It’s vital to gain public support and indeed the support of politicians,” Frank Brenner, the head of Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based agency that coordinates air traffic management across the region, told an industry conference in Cologne, Germany, last month. “I receive letters from the public that make me believe there will be a big wave of public concern ahead of us.”
Sophie in’t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament and vice chairwoman of its committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs, said new civilian drone applications were developing so quickly that legislators were struggling to keep up.
“Data protection rules are meant to be technology neutral and context neutral, so in that sense normal, existing rules should apply,” Ms. in’t Veld said. “The unanswered question is, can they be properly applied and enforced across these new platforms?”
Mr. Day at Schiebel said he understood Europeans’ unease. The region’s civilian drone industry is partly to blame for its “quiescence,” he said, in the face of opposition from “a small community that are growing ever more vocal.”
But the bigger worry might be market demand. He looked out at Schiebel’s gleaming hangar, filled with a half-dozen Camcopters in various stages of completion, all destined for customers abroad.
Despite the flurry of new European players in the civilian drone market, Mr. Day said he was doubtful there would be sufficient domestic demand in the coming years to sustain them all.
“We still have to earn our spurs,” Mr. Day said. “But for now, we’ll have to earn them overseas.”