Rules of the Road: Italy has established guidelines to allow UAVs, such as its Predator, and military aircraft to share civilian airspace. (Italian Air Force)
ROME — Italy is crafting regulations to manage the use of civilian airspace by military UAVs and aircraft.
While many UAV users are content to focus on how to fly their drones in war zones, where flight regulations are lax or nonexistent, the Italian Air Force has teamed with local civil aviation authorities over the past decade to work out UAV regulations for peacetime.
As well as flying its unarmed Predator or Reaper UAVs in Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya, a 2004 law has allowed Italy to send UAVs to patrol airspace over special events, including a 2007 visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the 2009 G-8 gathering.
“Italy got an early start on UAV flights in civil air space and drones are now regularly flying, ahead of any pan-European regulations on the subject,” said Gregory Alegi, an aviation analyst and lecturer at Italy'’s Air Force academy. “NATO working groups on drones have based work they are doing on Italy’s regulations.”
The everyday use of UAVs in civil airspace is facilitated by a series of flight corridors and training areas around the country that can be activated when the Italian Air Force wants to fly its UAVs there.
Until now, use by a UAV of those corridors and training areas meant clearing out all other aircraft. Now, civil aviation rules allow military aircraft to fly in the same corridors and areas as military drones.
“It’s state of the art, even futuristic,” said Col. Dario D’Ippolito, head of the Air Force’s Intelligence and Awareness policy office
The main corridor starts from Amendola Air Base in southern Italy, home of the Air Force’s 28th UAV Squadron. It snakes around the bottom of the Italian coast, before heading across to Decimomannu Air Base on Sardinia, where training areas for UAV flights have been set up.
The corridors, which measure about 5 nautical miles wide and 4,000 feet between its lowest and highest points, are “dormant” and can be activated on demand, D’Ippolito said. Furthermore, they are segmented, meaning that as a UAV exits from one section, that section is reopened for civil aircraft.
“Flying our remotely piloted aircraft [RPA] back in 2004 was a nightmare, and involved closure of big portions of airspace for a few hours, moving civilian aircraft around. But what we have now is a system of smart segregation,” D’Ippolito said.
The key, he said, was the close cooperation between the Air Force and Italy’s civil aviation and air-traffic control authorities. In each of Italy’s three civilian airspace regions, a control room is manned by civil aviation and military officers who together manage use of the corridors.
To operate UAVs weighing more than 20 kilograms, Italian UAV pilots also need to have full military pilot certification to fly manned aircraft under the Italian rules.
Last year, a Reaper was flown to Corsica, then to Sardinia, where it took part in a training exercise with French forces.
The Italian UAVs also have been used for law enforcement, reportedly shadowing mafia suspects on the island of Sicily.
One of the flight corridors heads for Sigonella Air Base in Sicily, where the Italian Air Force has deployed UAVs involved in Operation Mare Nostrum, an Italian Navy-led operation to spot and rescue African and Middle Eastern migrants trying to sail from Libya.
UAVs have been shifted from Amendola to Sigonella to be closer to the waters where the migrants are sailing. The US also is using Sigonella as a base for Global Hawk UAV flights.
To base its UAVs at Sigonella, the Italian Air Force has deployed a mobile ground control station there that handles line-of-sight takeoffs and landings. Once airborne, control of the UAV switches back to the Air Force’s control room at Amendola, where satellite navigation kicks in and a sensor operator receives imagery.
After the Mare Nostrum operation began, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems said it was testing the software needed to give the Italian Reapers’ Lynx Block 30 radar a maritime capability.
The firm said it also is in talks with the Air Force to equip the Reapers with the Selex ES Seaspray active electronically scanned array radar.
Once over the Mediterranean, the UAVs enter international airspace, which is divided into flight information regions over which nearby nations have nominal responsibility to a certain altitude.