The market for civil unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is beginning to take off in France, driven especially by small and medium-sized firms and young innovation-oriented companies. So how do things stand in terms of the regulatory framework for current and future use of civil drones?
Interview during a L’Atelier numérique (L’Atelier Digital) broadcast with Edouard Guilhot, the Chief Executive of Civic Drone, a manufacturer of non-military UAVs formerly known as WorkFly, and Thierry Vallat, a lawyer at the Paris bar who specialises in the legal aspects of new technologies.
L’Atelier: Is the dynamism of the French drone market due to technical advances, a relatively flexible regulatory framework, or a favourable climate for potential uses?
Edouard Guilhot: People have always wanted to fly. First we flew in aeroplanes, then we began to fly via a remote eye with a camera installed on aerial vehicles such as drones. This very useful facility has been made possible by the advent of a number of technologies – including the mobile phone, which has driven the miniaturisation of a whole range of components, with the result that ITC equipment is now much lighter. Then we have for instance the 3D printer, which enables rapid prototyping, and the Internet to distribute and relay data. All these innovations are today part and parcel of the manufacture of drones and underpin a variety of uses.
L’Atelier: Drones are being used today in a wide variety of ways, both on a private basis and for business purposes. Your drones are for business use. How far can they go? What can they be used for?
Edouard Guilhot: Under the legislation that came into force in April 2012, our UAVs fall into category E covering professional use. They are certified compliant with categories 1, 2 and 3 – i.e. covering UAVs that weigh under 4 kg, operating within view for up to 100 metres, out of view for up to 1 kilometres at a maximum altitude of 50 metres in an unpopulated zone, and within view for up to 100 metres in a populated zone. For UAVs weighing between 2 and 4 kg, which is the case with our drones, the impact in the event of a crash must be under 69 joules energy. To put it simply, if one of our drones collides with a person, he or she might suffer a minor knock but no more than that. And in order to lessen the impact of any fall we equip the drones with a parachute.
L’Atelier: Does private use come under the same set of regulations as for business purposes?
Thierry Vallat: Well, two separate laws covering these uses were passed in April 2012 but in fact the difference between private and business use is very small. What it boils down to is this: either you have a so-called ‘hobby’ drone which doesn’t have a camera, i.e. category A – the most basic category – and you can do more or less what you want in a very restricted space such as your garden. But as soon as you install either a camera or GPS, for example, you automatically move into category D. The whole flying scenario necessarily changes at that point and the individual has to comply with the same rules as businesses.
L’Atelier: The drones sold by French company Parrot as toys for the general public are equipped with cameras. Does this mean they come under category D?
Thierry Vallat: Well, I must admit that this does pose a problem for me as a lawyer. All the brands which are enjoying mass market popularity sell their drones as toys and there are no legal notices anywhere in sight specifying the regulatory framework they come under. Of course it wouldn’t take much for the manufacturers to put some legal documentation or some kind of code number into each box. That would at least serve to provide some warnings. In actual fact some people who have flown their camera-equipped drones over a city have faced criminal charges.
Edouard Guilhot: This is an important point because if there were ever an accident involving a ‘hobby’ drone, this could put the brakes on the growing use of commercial drones. That would be a blow to a market which already numbers over 1,000 operators and forty or so manufacturers, which means that it’s a substantial employer. We’re also currently exporting UAV knowhow, with all that this implies – foreign currency earnings and so on.
Commercial UAVs benefit the whole of society. In addition to the aerial photography that can be carried out by small ‘hobby’ drones, the use of drones in sectors such as agriculture – enabling rational agriculture which is less costly and creates less pollution – brings real benefit to society. Using drones in the buildings sector to gain access to areas that would otherwise be inaccessible to inspectors and engineers can help to increase the life of a building. And lastly, on the safety front, a drone can save lives by finding injured people buried under rubble. Every kind of commercial use can ultimately benefit society in some way.
L’Atelier: So you would argue that commercial UAVs should have more latitude than private-use drones?
Edouard Guilhot: Well, you don’t have the right to do just anything anywhere you like. You’re not allowed to buzz over people’s heads and if you want to fly a drone in a populated area you have to obtain authorisation from the French Civil Aviation Authority.
Thierry Vallat: There’s also the issue of taking photographs, using airspace and subsequently publishing the photos. And we mustn’t forget the ‘violation of privacy’ rules if a person is unwilling to be shown in a photo or video.
L’Atelier: Yes, but the April 2012 laws don’t deal with these issues.
Thierry Vallat: That’s true, but those rules come from the Civil Aviation Authority and from the Ministry of Ecology. However, the rules are now being changed to relax requirements on hobby drones. This will be happening very soon.
L’Atelier: Have you heard any complaints from people who have been filmed by a drone or injured by one flying around?
Thierry Vallat: I believe there have been relatively few complaints – certainly very few court cases – in France, at least. Abroad, in Australia, a drone which was filming a triathlon event crashed into an athlete in mid-race and the athlete needed a few stitches. In France if you endanger another person’s life you’re liable for two years in prison and a €75,000 fine.
Edouard Guilhot: In June last year the Ministry of the Interior held a meeting to discuss the issue of non- compliance with the laws. Heavy penalties are available to the judiciary but in practice guilty parties receive very light punishments – and that’s regrettable.
L’Atelier: Could poor piloting of a drone cause an accident?
Edouard Guilhot: All drones are intended to work on an automatic basis. They’re even thinking now about withdrawing the option of flying a drone manually because nowadays you can programme absolutely everything, from take-off to intermediate waypoints etc. The whole purpose of drones is that they should fly on automatic pilot. Otherwise they’re just a superior kind of model aeroplane equipped with a camera.
Of course drones need to be absolutely reliable, especially for flying over sensitive zones. For instance UAVs were used at the disaster site at Fukushima in Japan to measure radiation levels.
L’Atelier: Are you saying that before moving to the next level in the way we use drones, it would be better to improve the technological reliability of existing models?
Edouard Guilhot: Well, the technology is already pretty reliable but we’re just at the beginning. It’s like the early days of the automobile and aviation industries, with very rapid future growth in prospect. Among future developments I believe that we’ll see habitable UAVs in flight in the next ten to twenty-five years, depending on the regulations in individual countries. And perhaps sooner than that we’ll see drones delivering to people’s homes, perhaps within five to ten years in some countries, and then in other countries later on.