Unmanned craft (even for passengers) on the rise
It won’t be long before we’re climbing into pilotless, airborne taxis, says legal expert Luis Fernando Fiallos Pazmiño. We have the technology; we just need the rules.
Vincent Bongers
Thursday 21 November 2019
The Ehang drone from China can carry up to 100 kg of passenger weight.

"In ten years’ time, the skies above Leiden will be almost dark with unmanned aircraft", predicts Ecuadorian diplomat, Luis Fernando Fiallos Pazmiño (1978), as he gazes out of the Law Faculty’s restaurant window. "Most of them will probably be drones dropping off parcels or taking aerial photographs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are larger craft carrying people. Imagine an unmanned aeroplane taking off in, say Germany, and landing on a roof here. The technology’s not the problem; it’s mainly the regulations that are lagging behind."

Last week, Fiallos Pazmiño received his PhD for his research into the legal snags of unmanned aerial transport. "I used to be a civilian pilot", he explains. "The last plane I flew was a Beechcraft 1900, a twin-engine propeller plane, a very powerful and exciting passenger craft, but I was reading law too, and grew more and more interested in aviation and space law. In the end, I chose aviation law. You won’t be surprised to learn that there isn’t that much call for space-law specialists in Ecuador: we don’t have anything like NASA. So, I now work for Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

The world of unmanned aircraft is booming, Fiallos Pazmiño continues. "In 2016, the market was worth about 11 billion dollars and that is expected to rise to nearly 52 billion dollars by 2025."

In addition, the number of passenger craft will rise, albeit hesitatingly. "It’s not fiction anymore, it’s a reality. On 7 February 2018, the first unpiloted passenger plane, the Ehang 184, took off from Guangzhou City in China. It’s a plane that can transport a passenger weight of up to a hundred kilos. With a passenger, the Ehang can fly at a rate of over a hundred kilometres an hour for 23 minutes."

“Some can land in places that are awkward or impossible for ordinary planes and helicopters”

But that’s just the beginning, according to the lawyer. "Delft University of Technology is working an unmanned craft, the ATLAS, that can transport freight much more cheaply than ordinary aeroplanes. Boeing and Airbus are looking into projects for intercontinental flights while companies like Facebook and Google are interested in that technology too. Then there are lots of smaller players like the Bulgarian company Dronamics with a craft called Black Swan, a little plane that can transport 350 kilos of freight over 2,500 kilometres at half the price of a manned flight."

There’s so much variation in drones, says Fiallos Pazmiño. "Some can land in places that are awkward or impossible for ordinary planes and helicopters. Air Cargo Canada and Drone Delivery Canada are planning to use drones together on 150,000 routes. Canada has many remote villages without airfields, so it’s handy to use unmanned planes. I’ve no doubt that we’ll have pilotless passenger planes sooner or later. Ehang has made a deal with the United Arab Emirates about using their tiny planes as aerial taxis in Dubai. And that’s just for starters."

Black Swan drones are designed for freight transport, and can do it for half the price of a manned flight.

Although the industry is making advances, the legislation is lagging behind, the lawyer claims, particularly regarding international air traffic. "A country might allow an unmanned craft to fly over its own territory, but if that plane is to cross the border to another country, we’ll obviously need some rules. The ones we have don’t suffice."

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) draws up the rules like the ones needed here. "The existing arrangements provide for safety, etc. but they’re not really applicable to unmanned craft.

"There’s no pilot on an unmanned plane, which leaves two options: the pilot steers it from somewhere on the ground or a computer system is in charge. However, we need to make sure that the computer or pilot is capable. There aren’t any adequate laws to cover that yet. What happens if a drone crashes and the passengers die? Or if the plane smashes into someone’s house? It’s crucial that the damage can be dealt with in a legally sound fashion."

It means we need more rules, Fiallos Pazmiño argues. "The ICAO is taking care of it, but it’s a very long process. States are sovereign and they have the right to refuse or allow entry to their airspace, so nations need to agree on the rules of the game. The rules affect everything, from investigation procedures after an accident to licences for the craft and pilots. The system is already quite complicated and extensive, but now something needs to be put together for unmanned craft too."

Moreover, technical issues are complicated too. "Say a computer flies a plane without a human supervising. Is the technology truly capable of an adequate response if something goes wrong? Two recent disastrous crashes involving the Boeing 737 Max were the result of computer-made decisions. Hundreds of people were killed. Having consciousness makes a huge difference. When all that is sorted, unmanned flights can really take off. Then, everyone’s main concern will be…" Fiallos Pazmiño snaps his fingers: "…bigger wings and more powerful engines."