The battleground for supremacy in civil drone technology is rapidly shifting towards maturing operational concepts based on autonomy and artificial intelligence – which means Switzerland’s role as a global centre of excellence in drones and robotics will be pivotal for the success of Europe’s drone industry.

The country has for many years been a global drone industry hub, achieving a long list of drone world-firsts and hosting global pioneering companies such as Auterion, Flyability, Pix4D, Sensefly, and Wingtra, supported by world class research institutes, notably ETH Zurich and EPFL Lausanne. Switzerland’s aviation safety regulator, the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA), has been a global pioneer in balancing safety requirements with advancing new regulations to support more complex operations, such as remote identification and automated flight plan authorisation. The country’s importance as the next Silicon Valley of robotics and advanced autonomous systems in parallel with its expertise in software development – the open source PX4 ecosystem was founded in Zurich – are further key elements to Switzerland’s growing importance as a catalyst to moving the global drone industry to the next stage of its evolution.

Investment agencies The Greater Zurich Area and Greater Geneva Bern Area organised the Virtual Swiss Drone Industry Tour: Home of Drones webinar supported by the Drone Industry Association of Switzerland (DIAS) on November 16, 2020, in which key three leading figures of the Swiss drone industry gave more details on the country’s future role within the global industry.

Switzerland is the entry-point for the rest of the drone industry world into European market, said Manu Lubrano, DIAS President and CEO of low-altitude surveillance specialist INVOLI.

While China and USA have won the consumer tech, smart phone and information-storage cloud battles, the next battle-ground, autonomy, could see Europe emerge as a dominant force, according to DIAS board member Kevin Sartori, whose company Auterion provides companies with an ecosystem of software-defined drones, payloads, and apps. This next stage in the evolution of the enterprise drone industry will require mastery of a complex mix of software, engineering, testing, computer vision and machine-learning capabilities, all of which have already been matured in Switzerland’s drone ecosystem. Working in collaboration with other European colleagues, the Swiss industry and research partners will give the continent a vital competitive edge in a sector which will allow for the full scaling-up of autonomous drone operations around the world.

Over the past few years, Switzerland’s government and industry have together adopted a uniquely proactive approach to balancing safety and advancing more complex drone operations, according to Marcel Kägi, Innovation and Digitalisation Manager at FOCA. This has already given Switzerland a highly influential role in European Union and global rule-making. For example, FOCA’s work to develop the Specific Operations Risk Assessment (SORA) process as part of the world’s first authorisation to fly automated BVLOS operations has now been written into BVLOS rules developed in the EU, North America, Australia, India, China and beyond.

What this means for the industry is that the safety cases which underpin new and more complex drone operations and are accepted by FOCA in Switzerland are likely to be exportable elsewhere. “FOCA was part of the EU’s regulation so we know the regulation very well; it is likely that any authorisation we issue within the new regime will be recognised by other countries,” Marcel Kägi.  This has been a major factor in Swiss drone companies involved in drone deliveries, monitoring and agriculture being able to find export markets. 

“DIAS is the interface between the drone industry and the regulator,” said Manu Lubrano. “Many drone companies will fail unless they quickly implement the new regulations into their operations – which is why it is so important to be active with the regulator.”

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