Drone Collaborations: Harvesting the Civilian Benefits of UAVs

This article[i] outlines how collaborative initiatives in the emerging drone industry in Europe, supported by the institutions and executive agencies of the European Commission, may encourage new developments of various industrial use cases in order to strengthen the “green” markets in all sectors as well as the geopolitical role of the .

One of the core principles of the Green Deal, which is a priority in the political agenda, is the digitalisation of the economy, which includes the drone sector, to help with the transition to a climate neutral economy by 2050. To guide these developments of the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS/drones) in Europe, the Commission announced a new Drone Strategy 2.0 at the end of November 2022. The aviation market was opened to civil use of remotely piloted aircraft systems in 2014, and since then the Commission has been shaping a comprehensive EU policy, which allowed the introduction of both the Basic Regulation in 2018 and a series of rules regulating drone operations in 2019[ii] and 2021[iii].

Economic estimations and market research analysis show immense potential for drone technologies with projected global growth rates of each drone market segment of between 10% – 30% by 2030. Furthermore, some civilian use cases from the HorizonEurope ICAERUS project illustrate the variety of commercial applications that can be developed and utilised in the European economy. More information on these cases can be found on the project’s website.[iv]

  • UC1: represents a very good commercial case of crop monitoring and vineyard disease detection by drone in large-scale vineyards in Tarragona (Spain), where there is a clear shift toward both more high-quality wine products and organic grape production (23,000 ha in Catalonia). Developing a sustainable business model for UC1 might expand the market to other regions of Spain or even to neighbouring countries.
  • UC2: represents an optimisation process in precision agriculture, where the usage of drone spraying could increase crop yields. It develops drone services in the region of Attika (Greece) to explore all benefits of automatic pesticides spraying, collecting data, and assessing the economic indicators of crop production. The success of UC2 and its potential business model could turn the agricultural sector into a data-driven industry in a country where traditionally the agriculture has had a large GDP share of 4% and employed 684,900 people[v].
  • UC3: has a large scope and aims to utilise drone monitoring of land, farming terrains and livestock. It is at its experimental phase, and two R & D farms[vi] in the French Alps will apply drones to optimise the process of livestock monitoring during times of grazing and resting. UC3 has the business potential to scale-up to other regions where beef cattle, goats, buffaloes, or horses are in large numbers and grasslands extensive.
  • UC4: will offer business (B2B) digital solutions to landowners and state agencies in charge of forest protection and biodiversity in Lithuania. Forests cover 33.7% of the country’s territory, and as much as half of it is privately owned – 923,800 ha[vii]. The programme designs drone technology for forest health assessment in spots where natural disasters – fire, snow, wind, water logging, drought or related to wild animal – are likely to happen.
  • UC5: offers a B2C to provide an overall improvement of the supply chain in small packages and medical products as well as the quality of life in rural areas. UC5 has great opportunities for commercialisation and is open to services offered to various customer groups, including the ones for social purposes (isolated villages and towns, and mountain residences in the Balkans. Starting with a demonstration in North Macedonia.

The new Drone strategy 2.0 encourages collaborations between military and civil drone capabilities, and while Europe is leading the development and deployment of civil drone applications, its military capabilities remain less mature, which is partially a consequence of Europe not having its own tailor-made defence policy. In strengthening the EU’s defence and security, and thereby its global role, there is significant potential to develop and exploit synergies between civil, defence and space industries[viii]. For instance, defence projects may benefit from innovative developments of start-ups with civil purposes such as designing drone technology for crop health assessment, or forest and biodiversity protection, or delivering cargo and vice versa the civil aeronautics may be driven further by developments in the defence or space industries.

In this aspect, the existing classifications and categorisations of unmanned aircraft vehicles (drones) are well established by the engineers in technical terms, but less so by the economists in economic and business terms. For instance, the current NATO classification of military drones, including the unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), categorises them into three classes depending on weight:

  • Class 1: drones up to 150kg., subdivided into three categories – micro (less than 2kg); mini (less than 15kg); and small (more than 15kg). They have a typical range of 5-50 km using a Line of Sight (LOS) communication link.
  • Class 2: drones that fit between Class 1 and 3, deployed as a tactical tool, using long-range directional antennas to achieve a 200+ km range within Line of Sight.
  • Class 3: drones above 600 kg. that can reach an altitude of 10 to 20km Above Sea Level. They are deployed at the strategic level and use satellite communications for an unlimited range Beyond Line of Sight.

Similar classifications are applied in the civil drone projects which implement the military understanding of this technology without any presentation of business categories, and while one does not argue against this current trend, it is worthwhile saying that economic and business processes and evaluations need to firmly establish their presence in such initiatives. It is also the case that such large projects will of necessity be interdisciplinary, employing scientists from social and natural sciences.

Moreover, large military drone manufacturers are based in the United States – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman; Israel – Elbit Systems; France – Thales; and the UK – BAE Systems. The presence of large producers in North America explains why the military drone ecosystem is more matured in the US than in Europe and why the American concepts and methodology dominate in the European civil proposals for science and development projects.

However, Europe does have competitive advantage, in civilian drone application, but this need to be continuously supported and civilian benefits of UAVs harvest. Leading European universities have a significant role to play in civil drone innovations in the Netherlands and Switzerland while in Germany and the UK private companies are more important in this process. Exceptionally in the UK, Cranfield University Aerospace Department cooperates with private firms to develop research aircrafts as part of the UK airframe. Therefore, these collaborations need exploration and examination of the maturity of the current European ecosystem, the relations between EU- and non-EU-based stakeholders and institutions, and the possibilities for an expansion of the civil drone ecosystem based on mergers and acquisitions. To do so, the “value network” model provides good insights to the connectedness of all entities in a structural network, aiming to deliver a common value to specific end-users or markets through transfer of offerings.

This methodology is applied in the design of civil drone applications in the ICAERUS Research & Innovation Action (RIA) project, funded by HorizonEurope[ix] for the period of 2022-2026, which ambitiously promises to contribute to the achievements of sustainable development by introducing multi-purpose drone innovations that offer sustainable alternatives to conventional agricultural methods and significantly reduce any negative impacts[x]. The project pivots on the assumption that successful execution and market deployment of drone innovations involves the efforts of multiple stakeholders that cooperate, interact, and feed each other with knowledge as parts of an interconnected ecosystem. To parametrise key aspects of this ecosystem, the project’s pre-selected five industrial use cases (UC) investigate the relationships between stakeholders, performance, dynamics, and strategies.

The initial Work Package “Drone Landscape Analysis” creates the foundations for the operational framework of ICAERUS. It establishes the processes and mechanics for collecting the needed background information from the stakeholders and their networks, and transforms it via quantitative techniques into a valuable set of knowledge. The bottom-up approach applied in the stakeholder analysis aims to understand the needs, interests and goals of our use cases’ networks, stakeholder’s roles in the country’s ecosystem and their dynamic developments. Furthermore, the market analysis and the applied top-down approach thoroughly research the current and potential demand and supply in the local markets of the project’s use cases to better understand the characteristics and challenges of the European drone industry. The market data will feed the methodology of designing business models and market strategies to turn the use cases into modern sustainable business practices in Europe.

To conclude, the European Commission plans a comprehensive set of measures to reinforce the entire European drone ecosystem by 2030. It proposes actions to facilitate the move from demonstrations to large scale commercial operations. This is in line with the new growth strategy, the objectives of the European Green Deal and Digital Europe as well as the interests of European research, innovation, and entrepreneurship. There is also the potential for Europe’s military drone projects to learn a great deal from the civil drone practices and experiences, a reversal of the long-standing tendency for the civil sector to learn from the military.


[i] This article represents my own personal views, and not that of the ICAERUS Consortium, therefore any omissions or errors are solely my responsibility.

[ii] Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/945 and Regulation (EU) 2019/947

[iii] Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2021/664, Regulation (EU) 2021/665 & Regulation (EU) 2021/666

[iv] www.icaerus.eu

[v] Hellenic Statistical Authority,B2020

[vi] TheR&D farms are Jalogny and Carmejane farms in the villages of Jalogny and Le Chaffaut-Saint-Jurson

[vii] State Forest Service of Lithuania, 2020

[viii] Action plan on synergies between civil, defence and space industries, February 2020, Brussels

[ix] HORIZON-CL6-2021-GOVERNANCE-01-21: Potential of drones as multi-purpose vehicle – risks and added values

[x] www.icaerus.eu

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