With Drone Deliveries on the Horizon, Europe Moves to Set Ground Rules

The Safir project is happening at a transitional moment for the European Union’s commercial drone industry. The European Parliament and Council just expanded the bloc’s regulatory authority to include all civil drones, and the European Commission is completing a harmonized set of rules for drone use.

The Gatwick shutdown, which affected the travel plans of more than 140,000 people days before the Christmas holiday, “opened our eyes” to the importance of the European Commission’s regulatory work, Mr. Vanlook said, and the need for innovative solutions to drone traffic management. As an example, he pointed to Aveillant, a company in Safir based in Cambridge, England, that markets holographic radar technology designed to detect drone activity around airports, national borders and other critical areas.

“The technology to build a single drone obviously exists, and now we are playing catch-up with registration, tracking and rule making, all things that will prevent chaotic, ad hoc incidents like the one at Gatwick,” said Ellen Malfliet, an official from Unifly.

The commercial drone industry, while filled with unsolved hurdles and challenges, has attracted the attention of policymakers largely because of its economic potential. China is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial drones, while the United States is seeking to hasten the development of its own market. President Trump recently expanded opportunities for drone testing over populations, at night and beyond the line of sight.

Major technology companies other than Amazon are devoting resources to the industry, such as Wing, a unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which has been testing drone deliveries outside Canberra, Australia.

To keep up, the European Commission is helping to finance projects like Safir. Analysts say the commercial drone industry could produce more than 100,000 jobs within the European bloc by 2050.

Countries in Europe have already been embarking on their own experiments with unmanned aviation, from fast-food deliveries in Iceland to those of critical medicine in Switzerland. By regulating all civil drones, the European authorities hope to create a uniform system that brings with it major investment, said Enrique Navarro, a professor and lawyer in Spain who specializes in aviation.