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EU defence agency wants open skies for flying robots

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The European Union's nascent military ministry, the European Defence Agency, is mounting a push to allow flying robots to operate alongside regular air traffic.

As things presently stand, Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) are poorly integrated into civil air-traffic regimes and the laws which underpin them. Few UAVs are certified to fly in civil airspace. Most are military recce and weapons platforms which operate in segregated areas, either test facilities or combat zones, where regular commercial traffic doesn't crop up.

But the Brussels defence planners would like that to change.

"The main target is to address the challenge of enabling UAVs to operate alongside conventional air traffic," they say.

This might not immediately seem to be defence-related, and indeed the Eurocrats wander even further off the strictly defence track at first.

"This is the key to expanding the use of UAVs beyond the purely military into the security and ultimately commercial domains and to creating the scale of demand around which European industry can unite."

Flying robots for security use are already in the air, operating under the same exemptions as toys. But the EDA would seemingly like to see UAVs muscling in on the territory of police helicopters, perhaps allowing many more eyes in the sky, much less obtrusively, for the same or lesser cost.

However, the officials don't seem to be all that interested in establishing a Big Brother surveillance state. Rather, the goal is "a situation in which civilian and government-operated UAVs could operate alongside other manned aircraft in integrated airspace by 2012".

"[Such a situation] has the potential...to move Europe quickly to a leadership position in a field which is of prime importance for European armed forces and the European aerospace industry alike."

One of the EDA's purposes, according to the document (pdf) which brought it into being, is "promoting...research aimed at [European] leadership in strategic technologies for future defence and security capabilities".

The idea seems to be that if the EU can move swiftly to establish a regulatory environment which is friendly to UAV operations, this will establish a big European UAV market and thus a big domestic UAV industry. The USA, where airborne robots are being held back somewhat by FAA restrictions on where they can fly, might then be left far behind.

Just for once, the EDA seems to be dreaming, there might be a case of the US military-industrial base playing catch-up to that of the EU. European militaries might buy from European UAV makers before the pesky Yanks could tempt them with vast Pentagon-funded production runs and associated unit cost economies. As a result, Europe's armed forces would not be armed with American kit and dependent on US parts and support.

But this is, probably, just a dream. Even if the EDA can establish a European civil UAV market, it's never going to match the size of the American military one. The EDA is budgeting a paltry €500,000 for a "roadmap" toward its robot-friendly skies, and this will mainly be spent on scuffling around for industrial support and political backing.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is already throwing around tens of millions for actual working kill-bots such as the Reaper and Fire Scout. Projects are underway to develop full-size robot combat jets which can operate autonomously, even landing on aircraft carriers without pilot input.

And some European armed forces have already been seduced into buying from non-European makers. The RAF intends to deploy Reapers later this year, and is using an Israeli design as the basis of its upcoming Watchkeeper programme.

Fears of a European superstate able to bang heads militarily with the US would seem unjustifiable for now. ®

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