New NATO surveillance drones bet on Italian safety ruling

Sebastian Sprenger

COLOGNE, Germany — NATO members are relying on Italy’s safety certifications for the alliance’s new Alliance Ground Surveillance drone fleet, as questions remain about the aircraft’s ability to fly through Europe’s regulated airspace.

The status of the airworthiness-certification process is outlined in a recent government response to a parliamentary inquiry lodged by the far-left political party Die Linke. According to the document, Berlin is aware that the Italian government issued a so-called military-type certification in late October for the Northrop Grumman-made Global Hawk Block 40 drones, five of which will be stationed in Sigonella, Sicily, in 2020.

But officials said they have no information about the scope of an additional certificate required for actual operation of the drones alongside civilian aircraft, or whether the drones are authorized to fly in Italian airspace at all.

Operating military, unmanned aircraft safely in shared airspace remains an unsolved problem that contractors on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to address. That is why, for now, drone flights through regulated airspace require special corridors temporarily closed to all other traffic, a burdensome process especially in densely populated regions.

That will be the case for NATO’s drones traversing Germany, according to the Defence Ministry’s written response, dated Dec. 18. The aircraft are slated to use the same corridor — limited to one drone at a time — previously established for the U.S. Air Force. The service sent its own Global Hawks from Sigonella to support operations under the European Reassurance Initiative in the Baltic region, most recently during three flights in February, April and May.

Collision avoidance by way of sensors and autonomous avionics is one of the technology fields key to making large, military drones compliant with safety regulations. According to the German government, the alliance’s new aircraft are not equipped with sense-and-avoid technology, nor do they feature a “Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System,” defense officials wrote.

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Andrej Hunko, point man for European policy at Die Linke in the German parliament, criticized what he called a lack of airworthiness in the new NATO Global Hawk drones. Unmanned aircraft crash “significantly more often” than manned planes, including larger variants operating at high or medium altitude, he said in a statement.

Without the use of collision-avoidance features, the alliance's drones would crash “sooner or later,” Hunko predicted, calling on the German government to prohibit flights over Germany.

Die Linke rejects the use of all types of military drones, whereas the country’s other parties have largely supported the idea that the German military should be in the business of unmanned aviation for defense. Still, there is no consensus here on the use of armed drones.

German defense officials are still reeling from their experience with a previous, ill-fated attempt to field a large drone for intelligence collection. The Eurohawk, another Global Hawk derivative, was canceled in 2013 in large part because it turned out to be uncertifiable to fly in German airspace.

It remains to be seen what types of missions the new NATO drones are expected to fly and whether the certification restrictions are serious enough to hamper their desired effectiveness. Surveillance missions outside of Europe may be no problem, but traveling to hot spots such as the Baltics and the Black Sea could reopen a safety debate that some officials were hoping to keep under the radar.

Meanwhile, NATO announced the arrival of the second aircraft of its drone fleet in Sicily last week.

“This second ferry flight across the Atlantic is another major achievement on our road to establishing a leading-edge Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability for all NATO Allies,” U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Phillip Stewart, the Alliance Ground Surveillance Force commander, was quoted as saying in a statement.

The $1.5 billion program, which includes the aircraft and Airbus-made ground stations, is slated to be fully operational in 2022 following several years of delays.