Since January 2017, under the aegis of the Civil Aviation and Defense working group "OPS drones", the Directorate of Military Air Traffic (DIRCAM), the Directorate of Air Navigation Services (DSNA) and the French Air Force are cooperating to test the integration of MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) drones into unsegregated airspace.
This work resulted in different phases allowing testing of multiple operational scenarios and to progressively increase the area of evolution of these drones in IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) to eventually acquire the ability to fly without limitation in an international environment.
In 2018, the European Defense Agency (EDA) launched a study on the gradual integration of MALE drones into unsegregated airspace, the first phase of which is called "RPAS accommodation study." This study, consisting of a risk analysis verified by a simulation, was to be validated with actual flights.
Faced with difficulties in finding aircraft and structures capable of carrying out this type of flight, the EDA requested a contribution from its member nations. France, through the Director of State Aeronautical Safety (DSAé), offered the possibility of using flights made by its Air Force Reaper drones as part of the experimental campaign.
On May 19, 2020, a Reaper operated by the Air Force Command’s 1/33 "Belfort" drone squadron took off from Cognac Air Base (BA) 709. After local training in the area, it was transferred to the Bordeaux regional control center for an unsegregated IFR transit at lower altitudes (from ground level to flight level 195 included, i.e. below an altitude of about 6 km from sea level in ISO conditions).
The aircraft then passed under the control of the regional control center of Marseille and was authorized to fly at higher altitudes (above flight level 195) in order to enter a military zone to work with an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft. At the end of its mission, the Reaper made its return journey, successively controlled by the centers of Marseille and then Bordeaux, before being taken directed by Cognac at the end of the afternoon.
This flight demonstrated that the drone behaved like a piloted aircraft of the same category, by following its route in accordance with the mixed flight plan and even demonstrated its ability to adapt to the circumstances by benefiting from flight plan adjustments to make the trip more direct.
This integration flight of a MALE drone in unsegregated airspace opens the way for future cross-border flights, and confirms the possibility of carrying out flights by MALE drones in IFR conditions, without any specific equipment. These trials allow France to remain a pioneer in this field. Future flights can henceforth be included in the "guidelines for accommodation" of the EDA-European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and will inform the work in progress on civil drone regulations.