[INTERVIEW] Switzerland is drone innovation leader for a good reason
Flying drones requires a complex set of rules and restrictions, including those limiting altitude and location, due to the potential risk of striking objects and humans.
As much as regulators must regulate their use, governments want to allow for the innovation of the technology.
Switzerland is at the forefront of developing a regulatory framework for drones, and other European countries are adopting similar approaches.
Below are edited excerpts from an interview with Francine Zimmerman, director of the aviation policy and the strategy division at the Federal Office of Civil Aviation, Switzerland. Zimmerman is participating as a speaker in the Swiss Drone session, organized by the Swiss Business Hub South Korea together with Bexco, as part of the Drone Show Korea 2022.
Where does the Swiss industry stand in the global market? What is Swiss competitiveness in the drone industry?
A 2021 market study showed that the Swiss drone industry was estimated at 521 million francs[$565 million]. It is expected that the Swiss drone market could increase to 879 million in 2026. In a global comparison, Switzerland is still the ninth largest market. Switzerland ranks first globally when you look at the market size per capita. The Swiss government is very supportive of start-ups and industries and is as transparent as possible. In addition, the industry also benefits from the strong connections between Switzerland and the international scene. Switzerland's geographical position in the middle of the EU is also a major asset for Swiss competitiveness.
How does Switzerland develop a regulatory framework?
Switzerland has a bilateral Air Transport Agreement with the European Union. Therefore, Switzerland usually implements the regulations that the European Commission is developing in this area. Before the development of harmonized rules in Europe, Switzerland aimed for a pragmatic regulatory approach, such as the risk-based approval of complex drone applications. Recently, two European regulations came into force in the EU. One regulates, among other things, the operation of drones by remote pilots. The other stipulates safety standards and the technical criteria that the drone must have in order to be marketed. Although Switzerland is not a member of the EU, the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation [FOCA] is actively involved in the regulatory process in the European Union with other European member states and the European Aviation Safety Agency and was able to shape the regulatory development according to Swiss interests. Furthermore, FOCA is actively involved in the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (Jarus) to further develop regulatory frameworks suited internationally.
What are some examples of rules at the center of Switzerland's regulations on drone?
Specific Operations Risk Assessment (SORA) is an international risk-based methodology that has been mainly influenced by the work of FOCA. SORA has been and still is an enabler of innovative operations, especially due to its non-prescriptive character. The methodology is constantly being updated to include new information and lessons learned from practice. There are still open questions to be answered and areas where the methodology can be improved, but in general the impact has been positive so far. Switzerland started very early in the development of a concept for U-space, also known as UTM. It started first with a request from law enforcement agencies to increase the transparency of drone operations, including the introduction of remote identification of drones. U-space, or UTM, is a regulatory framework designed to integrate drones in a safe, efficient and scalable way into the airspace, notably through the use of digital services by remote pilots. Although the approach is not always the same, the goal is the same: to enable more and more complex drone operations. In this sense and for drone operators, this goal is well understood and well received. In addition, U-space opens up a whole new market in aviation with brand new players: U-space service providers. These organizations will be able to provide U-space services to drone operators in a competitive manner in all EU member states once they are certified. This approach therefore breaks with the approach of providing traffic management services in crewed aviation that is traditionally provided as a natural monopoly. Finally, the U-space concepts demand the consideration of new principles beyond safety, both from operators and the authority perspective. For example, environmental considerations, security or privacy. Such U-space services allow for transparency of operations.
Despite pioneering technologies, it is often said that Korean startups and ventures encounter the government's regulatory framework, and it sometimes hinders them from fast commercialization and innovation — limited drone testing space, long waits for permission, aviation approval for every drone over 25 kilograms, just to name a few. How does Switzerland offer companies an ideal setting to innovate, test and commercialize their products in a real-world environment?
Switzerland is fortunate to have some of the best universities and research institutes, including the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne and ETH Zurich with strong innovation clusters attached to them. These research institutes are a source of qualified manpower for industry but often work closely with Swiss industry to provide innovative solutions. There is also much funding allocated to organizations for innovative projects. One such fund is established directly by the Swiss Constitution and is paid out by the FOCA for innovative projects, promoting ecology or increasing aviation safety.
Could you provide some examples of commercialized drones in Switzerland? If a company has technology for an air taxi, can the technology become commercialized based on the Swiss regulatory framework?
American start-up Matternet in partnership with the Swiss Post was the first to transport blood samples between two hospitals using the SORA methodology. According to European regulations, air taxis must be certified and therefore meet very high technical criteria. Moreover, the U-space regulation is not really intended, at least not the first "version," for air taxi use. Technologically, FOCA would be ready to support such a company coming to Switzerland, but on the regulatory level, some adaptations are still missing. Furthermore, one of the biggest challenges FOCA is facing is public acceptance. This challenge is on FOCA's radar and still needs to be analyzed.
Does the Swiss drone ecosystem bring international startups and companies to Switzerland for their business? Could you describe some examples?
Yes, if we can mention Matternet again, which came to FOCA for authorization because the regulations in Switzerland were more liberal than in the U.S, but also because Switzerland is a country that encourages and supports innovation. Moreover, with its strategic geographical position in the middle of the EU and its bilateral agreements with the latter, companies have access to the EU market.
What are your thought on future regulations?
Switzerland has harmonized rules with the European Union when it comes to air transport. FOCA believes that an internationally interconnected sector such as aviation is above all flourishing with harmonized regulations and standards. Furthermore, with the adoption of the U-space regulatory package, digital services such as remote identification of drones or traffic information services will allow for a better integration of drones in the airspace. With the rapid evolution of new technological solutions, we expect that the U-space regulation will also evolve rapidly and that the integration of increasingly complex operations in greater number will be feasible.
BY PARK EUN-JEE [email@example.com]