NL Drone Dag proposes opening controlled airspaces to legalize thousands of flights and boost industry innovation

Wednesday, 19 June 2024

The Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management is considering opening controlled airspaces around major Dutch airports (Schiphol, Eelde, Lelystad, Rotterdam, and Maastricht) to drone pilots in the Open category and providing more space for Specific-category operators. Currently, these areas are restricted, leading to many illegal drone flights that complicate enforcement without necessarily causing safety issues.

At the last day of ADW, the issue was discussed by several attendees of the Dutch Drone Day, which brought together industry experts, regulators, and enthusiasts to discuss the current state and future potential of the drone industry in the Netherlands.

The proposal involves dividing Controlled Traffic Regions (CTRs) into four zones, with the innermost zones near runways reserved for Specific-category drones. Open-category drones would be allowed in outer zones, up to 120 meters high, potentially legalizing flights over cities like Amsterdam, Maastricht, and Rotterdam.

The ministry is exploring this due to several issues: thousands of illegal flights occur monthly, creating enforcement challenges; and two-way radio contact requirements for Specific-category flights burden air traffic control. "Thousands of illegal drone flights are registered monthly in Schiphol's CTR alone. These flights generally do not create unsafe situations, as most drones stay below 120 meters and do not fly close to the airport," highlights the enforcement issue.

Safety concerns

The conversation began with a speaker addressing the safety concerns associated with drone operations. Despite occasional incidents, the consensus is that the drone sector remains fundamentally safe. However, there is a call for greater boldness in the regulatory process to foster innovation without compromising safety.

A civil servant underscored the need for more precise and expedited regulatory measures. The complexity of current regulations often slows down the approval process, hindering industry growth. This sentiment was echoed by somebody in the audience, who highlighted the roles of different regulatory bodies in overseeing drone operations, product safety, and permit issuance. The increase in permit applications, from 65 in 2020 to 225 in 2023, underscores the sector's rapid growth and the need for more efficient regulatory processes.

Legal experts are assessing the feasibility and policy changes needed, focusing on ensuring clear responsibilities in case of accidents. The changes are expected by the end of the year, pending stakeholder consultations and regulatory adjustments. "The proposed solution is feasible," one expert noted, emphasizing the importance of clear responsibilities.

Increased competition

The changes would expand legal drone flight opportunities, reducing the enforcement burden. Specific-category operators might face increased competition, but the changes aim to create a healthier drone sector overall. "This change means a potential loss of their monopoly for Specific-category operators, but aims to create a healthier drone sector," acknowledged one official.

Other European countries have similar regulations, and the Dutch approach could harmonize with these, benefiting the European drone sector. "Other countries can benefit from the groundwork being done by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management," ensuring a more level playing field at the European level.

The discussion touched on the need for dedicated test areas where drones can be flown with fewer restrictions. Such spaces would allow for more extensive testing and development, helping the industry to advance more rapidly.

The focus should be on adopting a broader perspective, considering larger organizational adoptions, and pushing for more autonomous drone operations. The need for more accessible testing facilities and regulatory adjustments was highlighted as crucial for industry growth.

Test centers

Looking ahead, there is a clear need for more flexible and supportive regulatory frameworks that can adapt to the fast-paced evolution of drone technology. The establishment of dedicated test centers, like the proposed facility between Katwijk and Rotterdam, is seen as a positive step towards facilitating innovation and development.

Speakers also called for better public communication regarding drone regulations to make it easier for new entrants to navigate the complex regulatory landscape. Simplified, accessible information could help reduce the number of unauthorized drone flights and enhance overall compliance.

In conclusion, the Dutch Drone Day at ADW highlighted the critical balance between maintaining safety and fostering innovation. By streamlining regulatory processes, improving collaboration, and addressing workforce challenges, the Netherlands can position itself as a leader in the burgeoning drone industry. The collective efforts of regulators, industry players, and other stakeholders will be crucial in navigating the path forward, ensuring that the potential of drone technology is fully realized.

ADW 16 - 18 APRIL 2024

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