Swiss Made

How Switzerland and the US are preparing for a drone future

Francesco Bortoluzzi of the swissnex network explains how the United States and Switzerland have been collaborating over how to regulate the fast-growing drone ecosystem.

This content was published on June 21, 2019 - 11:00
Francesco Bortoluzzi,

One morning, while visiting home in Switzerland from my job in the US in March 2017, I woke up to a surprising sight out of my bedroom window: a drone delivering a package on the roof of the hospital in front of my building. I did not know it at the time, but I was witnessing one of the early test flights one of the world’s first automated blood sample delivery operations in an urban environment, taking place in the skies above my hometown of Lugano. These tests would shortly develop into a full-blown network of autonomous drone deliveries for diagnostic samples – which since has been replicated also by others in a number of cities in Switzerland, the United States, and Rwanda.

Francesco Bortoluzzi is an international relations practitioner based in Boston. He serves as Academic Relations Manager at swissnex Boston/New York, where he connects the Swiss research and academic ecosystems with North America. Francesco Bortoluzzi

Fast-forward to 2019 and I find myself facilitating several topical international conversationsExternal link about innovation in the field of drones. In my role as Academic Relations Manager at swissnex in Boston and New York, I have had the good fortune of spending the past few years exploring how, through commercial applications, drones are helping to shape the future way of life of our increasingly global society.

As a world leader in robotics and automation, Switzerland is an extremely enabling environment for drone innovators, binding together an excellent research community, a dynamic entrepreneurial scene, and a competitive business environment. This, in conjunction with a flexible and unbureaucratic regulatory system facilitating the testing and deployment of drone technology, has made it possible for over 80 of the world’s most exciting drone companies, Swiss and international alike, to flourish and call Switzerland their home.

It has also made Switzerland’s Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) – responsible for managing Swiss airspace and instrumental in the drone deliveries I saw in Lugano – a global leader in drone regulation.

Bringing leaders together

Part of our work at swissnex involves promoting broad international collaboration and progress by facilitating cross-disciplinary, personal exchanges.

We strive to identify, ahead of time, topical emerging trends that we use to guide our work in serving our Swiss and American stakeholders. We connect people with wildly different backgrounds, identifying the right interlocutors and motivating them to join our activities. We set the stage for interdisciplinary and international conversations about how technology is shaping society, sometimes in unusual ways and locations, in collaboration with a wide array of partners. Finally, we allow for moments of engineered serendipity to occur that can spark new international collaborations addressing important future challenges for the benefit of our global society.

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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Recently, through the swissnex programme Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier, I helped a unit of the Swiss federal aviation office share its drone expertise with partner organizations in the United States. We conducted a multi-city series of events bringing together experts from the fields of aviation, innovation, engineering, urban planning, architecture, design, and regulation.

We capped off the tour in Washington, D.C., where we joined forces with the Swiss Embassy and the Swiss TouchExternal link campaign to broker high-level conversations between the FOCA, the US Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, and Congress.

Regulating an innovative future

During my time with FOCA, I learned about the relatively short history of interaction between the drone industry and policymakers in Switzerland. The country’s drone leadership began in the early 2000s, when FOCA had no rules on its books specifically addressing the use of drones – until Professor Dario Floreano, from the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the Federal Institute of Technology EPFL, requested an authorization to test an autonomous swarm of a dozen drones above his campus as part of a research project. This seemingly simple request immediately brought several important issues on drone regulations to the top of the Swiss regulators’ agenda, from traffic management to inclusion in the National Airspace System, risk mitigation, privacy, security concerns, and beyond. 

Inspired by the fascinating “polivation” approach of blending policy and innovation (a term coined by drone legal expert Lisa Ellman and discussed in detail in her opening keynote at the Swiss Embassy in DC), FOCA drew on the expertise of the Swiss ecosystem, working hand-in-hand with trusted academic and industrial partners across disciplines, and co-developing regulatory frameworks beneficial to all actors involved.

The innovative regulatory frameworks resulting from these collaborations gathered significant traction, both by inspiring other regulators (for example, in the EU, Australia, and China) and by developing sophisticated digital and automated air traffic control systems. These developments have attracted companies such as Wing that look to take advantage of the digitalization of the Swiss airspace to conduct specialized testing and grow their ventures abroad.

Switzerland’s place in an inherently global field

Following FOCA on its tour of US east coast cities and listening to conversations along the way made me quickly understand why the aviation regulator is investing such considerable resources in finding new ways to cooperate with fellow agencies and companies across the globe. Aviation has always been an inherently global field and Switzerland, as a small country, cannot afford to only focus inward if it wants to continue to be a world leader in the sector.

It was fascinating to witness that every person we talked to, whether in Boston, New York, or Washington D.C., either knew or had heard of the FOCA delegation and was looking forward to sharing insights with them. It was the same for the FOCA representatives, who freely admitted that the key to the continued success of their work rested in international exchange and cooperation. Over the past decade, for instance, they have learned as much from the FAA’s work in integrating drones into US airspace as the FAA did from them. As I see it, the sum of these exchanges is not only growing the potential and value of international innovation ecosystems, but also strengthening Switzerland’s position on the map as an attractive location for both innovators and industry globally.

Drone regulation in the US and Switzerland
What are the approaches of Swiss and US authorities when it comes to regulating drones? 

• Safety-oriented and open-ended regulatory system (e.g. “don’t fly over people” / “don’t fly beyond visual line of sight”)
• No drone registration needed (yet)
• Integration with U-Space digital airspace control system
• Leader in development of SORA (Specific Operations Risk Assessment)

• Prescriptive and highly structured regulatory system (e.g. “your drone of less 25kg can only fly in Class XYZ airspace while in line of sight”)
• Drone registration required
• UTM (Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management) integration

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A multi-city tour with Swiss aviation experts

Boston: A public event and think tank called Aerial Futures: The Third DimensionExternal link involved more than 30 experts from the fields of aviation, innovation, engineering, urban planning, architecture, design, and regulation. We discussed the future of our so-called “lower skies” and how cargo drones and air taxis might help to better connect rural and urban environments.

New York:  We talked to industry experts at the Swiss Residence and, in collaboration with the European-American Chamber of Commerce and the Swiss Consulate General in New York City, looked at how countries can positively support innovative drone ecosystems within and across their borders, as well as the increasingly important role drones play in humanitarian and rescue operations all over the world.

Washington, D.C.: At the Swiss Residence, we put together a public event together with the Swiss Embassy where we highlighted Swiss-American cooperation on drones and learned about the Swiss approach to regulating this rapidly emerging and highly accessible technology. Among the participants joining us around the Swiss Touch Table were drone delivery businesses Matternet and Wing, as well as the airspace management companies AirMap and skyguide.

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