What France can teach Obama about civilian drones


Joseph Bamat FRANCE 24

France boasts one of the world’s most advanced laws regulating the use of civilian drones, and could offer inspiration to Washington as it begins to craft its own rules on the increasingly popular devices.

President Barack Obama this week said the United States needed to better regulate civilian drones as the unmanned aircrafts become smaller, cheaper and more accessible to ordinary consumers.

His announcement came after a half-meter drone sparked a Secret Service alert when it crashed into grounds of the White House on Monday evening. An employee of a federal intelligence unit unintentionally piloted the drone onto presidential property while off duty, it was later revealed.

“The drone that landed in the White House you buy in Radio Shack,” Obama quipped in reference to the US-retailer that sells common electronics.

“We don’t really have any kind of regulatory structure at all for it,” he told CNN on Tuesday, saying that while drones showed promising functions in fields like agriculture and conservationism, they could also be used in harmful ways.

“I’ve assigned some of the relevant agencies to start talking to stakeholders and figure out how we’re going to put an architecture in place that makes sure that these things aren’t dangerous and that they’re not violating people’s privacy,” he added.

As officials begin drafting the do’s and don’ts of civilian drones hovering over US airspace, they might find it useful to take a peek across the Atlantic. France is a worldwide pioneer in the matter, having adopted civilian drone legislation in the spring of 2012. The country is now reviewing the text as an 18-month implementation period comes to a close.

French experts say that civilian drone use, both for recreational and commercial purposes, can be regulated without hindering its development, and that drones are opening promising economic opportunities in every major industry.

Authorize drones for ‘better control’

According to Emmanuel de Maistre, CEO of Redbird, a Paris-based firm specialised in capturing and analysing industrial data with drones, French legislation gives civilians wide latitude to exploit drones.

“What seems clear is that governments should not block drone use, even if these machines are not easy to pilot,” Maistre, who is also a co-founder of a French civilian drone association, told FRANCE 24. “People will fly drones, even if they are banned, so it’s better to authorize their use in order to better control them.”

Like in the US, ordinary consumers in France can purchase drones from specialty stores for recreational use. In France these drones can be flown without a special permit in an airspace under 500 feet, but not over populated areas, airfields, and a handful of sensitive zones, like military buildings and nuclear sites.

Unlike the US, France has laid the groundwork for the use of drones for private enterprise, with operators required to apply for official certification. Businesses can fly drones within a pilot’s line of sight and beyond that line of sight (with the help of a video camera) over a distance of up to 15 kilometres. Civil commercial operators can also request special permission from police to fly over populated areas.

This freedom has allowed firms in France to use drones in sophisticated and groundbreaking ways, including helping build or repair roadways, power lines, pipelines, and other economically vital infrastructure. The large majority of certification applications so far have come from media companies, but the heavy industry and agricultural sectors have also started exploring drone use.

France has thus become the country with the largest number of drone operators in Europe, with around 1,600 companies and counting.

The drone gap

This is not to say France has not struggled with civilian drones since the machines started buzzing around the skies.

In an episode reminiscent of this week’s crash landing on the White House Lawn, a drone illegally flew over the Elysée Palace earlier this month, police reported. The aircraft immediately flew away from the presidential residence, but authorities have launched a probe into the security breach.

Perhaps more worryingly, small civilian drones have been spotted soaring above French nuclear reactors and military installations in recent weeks, with the latest incident recorded just this week. The French capital remains on an elevated terrorist alert level following attacks between January 7 and 9 that claimed the lives of 17 victims.

These drone incidents are likely nothing more than misguided pranks, but the culprits risk serious punishment if they are identified. French law stipulates a maximum of five years in prison and a 75,000 euros fine for unlawful use of a drone.

Since the legislation went into effect in 2012, around 30 legal cases involving drones have given way to criminal punishment. Almost all of the offenders were slapped with small fines, but one person earned a one-year suspended prison sentence. In his case, he had flown a civilian drone dangerously close to a helicopter.

Despite those bumps, France appears poised to loosen restrictions as it completes its first review of drone legislation this year, according to Maistre.

Experts are encouraging French authorities to make it easier to acquire professional certification for drones weighing less than two kilograms  – these are easier to operate and, more importantly, are less dangerous than bulkier versions. On the other hand, they have suggested the government make it harder to fly drones weighing eight kilograms or more.

Maistre admits he is surprised that the United States, a worldwide leader in technological innovation, is so far behind countries like France, Britain and Sweden when it comes to civilian drones, especially since it dominates military drone technology.

He expects the US will quickly close the gap when it has established its own parameters for civilian drone use, especially in the commercial sector. “European countries must continue to evolve in order to maintain the advantage we enjoy today,” he said.