Airbus Seeks to Operate Drones for Remote Civil-Mission Support

Airbus Group NV is seeking clearance from European air safety regulators to allow an unmanned aerial vehicle to fly in civil air space as the use of such craft for maintenance support and observations becomes more practical.

Airbus Defence & Space is the first company in Europe to apply for such certification with the European Aviation Safety Agency as the company prepares for a future when unpiloted aircraft will operate in the space now cleared only for piloted planes, said Jens Nielsen, the head of Airbus’s unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, business.

The so-called Atlante UAV for which it’s seeking civil certification is intended to perform commercial missions including surveillance of oil pipes, power lines, railways, natural disasters, forest fires, and sporting events. The Atlante is a 570-kilogram (1,256 pounds), propeller-powered UAV with a wingspan of eight meters (26 feet), the company said.

“These things are done now with piloted aircraft and helicopters, and can be very expensive,” Nielsen said in a telephone interview. “Using UAVs could reduce the cost.”

Because EASA has never before been asked to clear commercial drones to fly in space normally used by pilots, the regulatory process could take quite a while as the Cologne-based agency establishes exactly what information it would require to complete clearances.

“Within six to 12 months we’ll have a good idea what we need to comply with and then should have gotten an idea of what data is needed” to demonstrate to EASA that such vehicles could interact safely in civilian space, Nielsen said.

Makers of commercial UAVs in the U.S. are also waiting for the country’s regulatory authority, the Federal Aviation Administration, to set clear guidelines and beginning authorizing their use.

For Airbus DS, developing UAVs would help reduce the dependence on military applications such as the Eurofighter, the combat aircraft which it makes with U.K.-based BAE Systems Plc and Italy’s Finmeccanica SpA.

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