The drone market in France in 2015 was estimated at €60 million and could rise to €650 million by 2025. Although the French authorities took regulatory measures at a very early stage, the spectacular boom in recreational drones has not yet been followed by any similar development for professional devices: there is a significant potential here for industrial growth.
Although initially driven by military defence and security requirements, professional uses also extend to civilian security (monitoring borders and sensitive sites, maritime security, site inspection following aviation accidents) and new commercial uses are appearing on the horizon (inspection of infrastructure and engineering works, high-voltage power lines, precision agriculture, etc.) This is a promising market but further expansion of civilian professional uses will call for regulatory and technological enhancement before major network operators such as SNCF, EDF and ENGIE can develop linear surveillance applications based on the use of drones.
All drones use frequencies for remote control. The use of long-range drones (non-line of sight or over the horizon operation) will require either protected spectrum resources or the development of safe operational procedures (in particular control redundancy) to ensure safe shared use of airspace.
The Defence Ministry already has the capacity for piloting drones by satellite, but in “segregated airspace” to ensure the safety of other aircraft. Military drones have been progressing steadily for over a decade because they are of great advantage when observing an area of operations, or for both brief and lengthy missions (up to and including several dozens of hours); as a result, drones provide strong complementarity with satellite observation.
A regulatory system featuring a variety of constraints depending on the type of usage, has been developed by the French civilian aviation authorities for small drones with line of sight (LoS) control. The frequencies, generally in what are known as the general authorisation regime Wi-Fi bands, are not protected.
Larger drones need totally reliable command-control links and they use frequencies already recognised for this type of operation, in particular in the 5 GHz band identified by WRC-12 for AMS(R)S / AM(R)S service. For long-range drone control, there is no alternative to satellites. Nevertheless, while awaiting the emergence of satellites capable of this function in the 5 GHz band, ITU considered at WRC-15 whether it would be possible to fall back on satellite commercial offers in the Ku and Ka bands for FSS. Such use of non-specific frequencies to pilot drones moving in “non- segregated airspace” (together with other air traffic) could not be contemplated unless subject to a number of conditions, due for ICAO consideration by 2023. This organisation is therefore currently working on drafting recommendations and standards applicable to drones in non-segregated airspace in the 5 GHz band as well as SFS Ku and Ka bands.
In 2016, Thalès Alenia Space (TAS) presented a new concept based on low-orbit satellites with 5 GHz command-control capacity.
Such ongoing research efforts raise hopes of safe solutions emerging within the next few years, to the accompaniment of reductions in the price of components and harmonisation of European regulations together with the development of a regulatory framework in the United States.
Building on expectations that regulatory hurdles can be negotiated and on gains in competitiveness relative to existing vectors (satellites, helicopters, small aircraft), projects involving satellite-controlled drones for civilian applications are expanding apace. Some emblematic projects are already in the offing, for example the 5G global solar-powered drone network Google is sponsoring or Amazon’s delivery drones. An abundance of rather more accessible projects for personal monitoring and safety, on land or at sea, are also under scrutiny.