Last month, the European Parliament's transport and tourism committee adopted its first civil drones report, highlighting the need for any regulation to take on a risk-based approach. It will be voted on in plenary in a few weeks, and will be part of the Commission's aviation package which is set to be unveiled in December.
While drones have long been deployed for military purposes, civilian use is fairly recent. In the US, farmers have begun using them to spray their crops, some journalists are looking into using them to gather information, and online retailer Amazon has announced it is developing a drone-based delivery system. Despite this, there is still no legislation in place to regulate civilian drone use.
Parliament's EPP group shadow rapporteur on the dossier, Renaud Muselier, points out that, "if the EU established the world's very first drone legislation, this would give us a major asset in the face of global competition. We would be able to determine future standards in the field of flying rules and, indirectly, technologies."
The report makes a distinction between professional and recreational uses of drones, which Muselier believes is essential. He explains that, "the European aviation safety agency's proposed categorisation seems incomplete."
"For example, the 'open' category allows anyone - without a license - to pilot a drone if it weighs less than 25kg. Starting from a certain weight, authorities should be able to enforce some requirements - license, permit or other - because the most dangerous citizen is whoever buys a drone off the internet, not professionals who have a business to run. Therefore, the rules should not be the same for these two different uses."
The proposed rules would extend to what is commonly referred to as, 'beyond visual line of sight', meaning when the person operating the drone can no longer see it and must rely on remote sensing.
This is also important, says the French MEP, because, "it is the future of this technology. We want the drones to accomplish a large range of missions, such as scanning areas, monitoring rail or pipeline infrastructures or rescuing people. To be able to do so, we have to allow them to fly long distances."
But it won't all be smooth sailing, as, "one of the biggest challenges we face now is public opinion. We have to convince people that drones themselves are not a danger. They are a tool and just like any tool, it all depends on who uses them."
S&D group shadow rapporteur Janusz Zemke warns that, "even a small drone colliding with a passenger plane could have devastating effects, as could a drone crashing into a power plant or a petrol station."
There is also the issue of privacy, as, "civil drones may be, and, in fact, are, used to collect information about people's private lives, for example by journalists or detective agencies."
This is why the Polish MEP calls for, "common production standards for drones, because regardless of whether they are manufactured in or outside Europe, they are still sold to all member states on a massive scale. The civilian use of drones is not restricted by country frontiers - they can be used for cross-border operations."
"Therefore, the European Commission and Parliament plan on introducing regulations to cover the whole of the EU. Objectively, I believe this issue should be an EU competency."
Faced with these risks, "we need technologies that can develop counter mechanisms to detect and neutralise dangerous drones. For example, geofencing could provide a solution to prevent drones from flying in zones near airports or power plants."
"Therefore, it is crucial that we stimulate R&D activities and establish test locations to support the drone industry", says ALDE group shadow rapporteur Matthijs van Miltenburg.
"We must also safeguard privacy and data protection. Civil drone operations need to abide by current privacy legislation. And, industry and operators must be aware of the privacy implications of the use of drones for civil purposes. Protective measures could be included in the design of drones for commercial use."
"Software incorporated to automatically blur images of people, for instance, can prevent drones from being able to violate the right to privacy. If enough attention is paid to privacy and data protection, there will be greater public acceptance of civilian drones, which is crucial to the sector."
"We must also take liability into account. The drone pilot will be held responsible for the operation at all times."
"Both pilots and drones need to be traceable. Mandatory registration for all drones and operations, as well as the installation of an ID-chip to which the operator and its drone are connected and therefore identifiable in case of an accident, could be effective measures."
"Member states are responsible for enforcing applicable insurance and third-party liability regime and monitoring the compensation mechanisms for potential victims."
Despite the risks, the drone industry has considerable potential. Matthijs van Miltenburg points out that, "according to the Commission, the civilian use of drones could create around 150,000 jobs by 2050". He adds, "rapid developments could lead to many opportunities - the sky is the limit."