Drones will become part of our daily lives shortly: what challenges must be overcome for this to become a reality? The main one is undoubtedly the UAS certification.
The technological development of drones has made their applications exponentially grow in activities such as public safety, infrastructure inspection, or goods delivery, among many others. All this, combined with other existing or developing technologies, such as artificial intelligence, will undoubtedly offer new possibilities in the drone sector. This growing sector in Spain is expected to reach a gross revenue of nearly 1.2 billion euros in less than 15 years. Therefore, this is proof that drones will soon become part of our daily lives. Now, we ask ourselves what challenges must be overcome for this to become a reality; the main one is undoubtedly safety and how we guarantee this safety: the certification of the UAS.
UAS assessment certification
To ensure the safe integration of these systems into the airspace, Regulatory Authorities have introduced a Class Identification Label that manufacturers can affix to their systems once they have achieved the certification. Certifying is not an easy task, especially when it comes to a product with innovative ambitions. For most UAS manufacturers, certification regulations are not always considered at early stages and the main development effort is focused on building and designing, thinking about the function to be fulfilled, the market to be served and the innovation that the design team can bring about.
On the other hand, the regulatory framework is not mature yet. Regulations have changed and evolved in recent years, both in the military and civilian sectors. This brings insecurity to companies that may put aside the certification strategy until more mature stages.
However, this is not the agenda of the regulatory bodies since this is not their purpose either. The goal of the regulator is to make the airspace and UAVs integrated into it, safe for people, infrastructure, and vehicles.
The final UAS certification objective
When the design strategy for a UAS is not linked to a certification scheme, difficulties arise. Adapting the aerial vehicle to strict certification requirements often becomes a problem because significant changes to the drone architecture are sometimes needed, leading to unplanned costs for the manufacturer.
Therefore, technology development must be planned together with the product’s operations and target regulatory framework. The design team should be familiar with safety and reliability requirements from the capture needs phase.
It is essential to be clear about the final certification objective to ensure that the system architecture can meet the final application’s requirements.
For instance, the ‘open’ and ‘specific’ categories, which involve the lowest risk activities, have the least strict rules associated with the certification process. This will differ from that of a traditional aircraft (i.e. commercial aircraft and freighters) because the operational risk of activities involving this type of category is much lower than the risk involved, for example, in the transport of people in commercial aircraft or the transportation of hazardous goods.
Similarly, civil drones within the certified category – the ones that cater for the operations with the highest level of risk – will always need to be certified. To allow operations in the certified category, almost all the aviation regulations will need to be amended. So, this will be a major task since the approach used to ensure the safety of these flights will be very similar to the one used for manned aviation. Namely, Urban Air Mobility is expected to become a reality in Europe in the coming years. Not only that, but many other services provided by drones that may lie within the certified category have already been tested and efficiently proved, a clear indication that UAS will become a part of our lives shortly. The EU, and EASA in particular, have an essential role to play in enabling this breakthrough and helping the European industry be the first promoter at the global level.