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There is a clear pathway from ATM to UTM - interview

unmanned airspace | 28 september 2017

This article was first published in Unmanned Airspace.

What’s the role of air navigation service providers (ANSPs) in UAS traffic management (UTM)? 

In the UK, NATS is the ANSP and its licence is to control aircraft in regulated airspace.  It also provides a safety service outside of regulated airspace where people potentially want to fly – such as over and around smaller towns and cities.  While coordination and permissions are required from drone operators to fly in regulated airspace, flight outside of regulated airspace does not generally require the permission of the ANSP if it meets with regulatory requirements.  ANSPs such as NATS will play a key role in integrating drones into that airspace. The question is whether NATS will be the one to provide that UTM service at a national level or not, and that debate is still live and continuing. NATS and other ANSPs may choose to work with more agile, third-party providers to offer these services.

Who’s going to licence the new service providers?  What will be the role of the regulator?

The regulator will determine not only the rules of flight for autonomous systems, but also licensing and interface requirements.  But will countries have one UTM provider, or overlapping providers? Or will there be multiple competing UTM companies and if there are, how will those companies integrate? How will these different scenarios be coordinated by regulators, and how will these companies integrate with each other? With traditional ANSPs it’s quite difficult to have competing air traffic services.  These are issues for regulators to decide.

When’s that going to happen?

In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is looking to have line of sight drone operations by 2020.  To get there, they’ll need to decide how to structure these regulations. One of the challenges for the regulator is to help create the market for drone services which will also drive the requirement for UTM services. Today, because commercial drones are not permitted to fly beyond line of sight, that market is still in its infancy.

But how can the regulators decide what’s safe and what’s not safe in this new world?

If the regulator says you’ve got to operate drones with 100,000 hours mean-time-before-failure for example, then fine, the industry will build drones to do this. Responsible commercial operators would absolutely love to comply with whatever the rules say – they just want to know what the rules are.

I think one of the other important safety considerations is the issue of identification. Longer term, having electronic identification of everything that’s flying – glider, hang-glider, drone, a light aircraft is going to be essential if you’re going to look at increasingly busy airspace.  Because if you envisage a world 10, 15, 20 years down the tracks, where drones are very much part of everyday life, then you’re going to need to know where all of these drones are and what else is flying out there.

Do you think that by 2020 there will be a common European regulatory framework for UTM, defining what UTM is and how it’s going to be organised on a country-by-country basis?

Even if there’s a common European EASA framework, there may still be variations country to country, because some nations are more relaxed about flying drones in certain classes of airspace than others. As people build up hours and experience, and prove that different types of air vehicles can be integrated together safely, you will start to see airspace opening up to allow more sophisticated use cases. And you’ll see more coordination and collaboration across Europe and worldwide.

How much of this process will be driven by the industry itself, coming up with solutions before the regulators?  

There are many ways that industry can help regulators tackle the challenges of managing unmanned air traffic. For example, if you’re an airspace manager using the AirMap system, you can communicate new or changing airspace conditions with just a few taps – and then drone operators will see these changes populate instantly on the app they use for flight planning.  That’s very dynamic, and solves an operational problem for airspace managers. That’s just one example of how industry can help regulators clear the way for more complex drone operations.  About 80% of the world’s drones already use the AirMap system and we service over 100,000 drone flights every day, so there is already a lot of industry activity driving progress for drone customers, although this is very much with the support of national regulators.

Can you write standards so it doesn’t matter which system you use?

Performance-based regulations can help here. That’s one way to make sure that whatever system the drone operator chooses, it is certified to standards that the regulator is happy with. As part of this, we would need standards for how information is shared and integrated across the entire airspace system.

Presumably airspace changes would be fed directly into the system by the safety regulator. Or would they be issued by the ANSP?

That’s an interesting point, because from a funding point of view, most ANSP services are paid for by airlines and the airlines will not want to fund drone operations.   This is a question that has slowed progress in the UK, because while there is demand for NATS to get involved, there is still the question of who will fund this.  There’s a safety issue here, but there’s also a limit to how much NATS can do with funds provided by the airlines primarily to ensure safety.

So where is the money going to come from?  Drone operators?

I suspect that you will end up with a variety of mechanisms for funding these things. It will probably vary by country, but whatever approach is taken, it’s likely that commercial drone operators will need to pay for UTM services.

When you say “suspect” is this something that’s been talked about and are there people looking at funding?

I’m not aware of any definitive plans but it would seem to me that somewhere along the line you will need to work out how to break the funding logjam.

In the meantime there are operators with fantastic business plans for drone operations but how far are they off being able to deliver, in terms of technology? How far are they being restrained by a lack of regulation?

At present globally everyone is waiting to see what the regulators decide. The technology is definitely out there to help drones fly safely. There’s a lot to think about, because low-altitude airspace is incredibly complex. You have static obstacles that may change overnight – such as when someone puts up a crane – and dynamic obstacles such as pedestrians and school playgrounds, which are open at certain times and closed at others. So when you’re looking at the risk and flight-planning and the weather, you’ve got a significant number of issues to take in to account at low level.  We are at the stage now where the regulators want to assure themselves that all those dynamic and static variables can be taken into account by drone operators when they fly.

What regulations need to be in place, by whom, before we can see Amazon delivering parcels by drone?

That will be up to the regulator to determine. First, you’ve got to look at the drone: what are the standards required to satisfy the regulator that it’s safe to fly?  A lot of the current regulations are designed for the certification of manned aircraft and that doesn’t translate very easily into the world of drones. Having said that, a lot of drones – just by the number of hours that have been built up – can be shown to be inherently safe.

Some of the issues we have to consider are the complexity of low-level airspace and potential for loss of signal, or wind, or gusts around buildings.  And risk. I think drone certification is a subject in its own right.  I suspect standards will need to transition to suit drones rather than be developed from manned aircraft.

How far away are we away from operational airworthiness drone standards?

The 2020s probably. I think there’s still quite a lot of work to take into account. A lot of it comes down to the consultation process, getting legislation through Parliament. It’s not an engineering timeline, it’s more of a process and certification timeline.  The CAA is looking to ensure that operators who have drones above 250 grams register their drones. In theory, you could put that in practice by Monday morning. But it has to go through Parliament and that’s what takes the time.

How can we make sure these standards are globally-based?

There’s a lot of information sharing and consultation.  From a European point of view there’s some good work going on with EASA regulation, but the challenge will be one of a convergence of national standards. You also have ICAO, which held a drone conference last weekend. It’s clear that drone operators are not waiting for a definitive ruleset from the European regulator. They’re moving ahead at their own pace – they’re keeping an eye on what the regulators are doing, but they’re not sitting back and waiting before they launch their operations.

But I guess at some stage the regulators will have to trust these new models and that the people coming in understand aviation.

It’s a question of trust and budgets.  To be fair, all of the ANSPs that I’ve worked with and spoken to over the past couple of years, without exception, are keen to think about how this new technology can help with opening up airspace for drones and how that’s going to disrupt their world in the years ahead. If you can do flight planning for drones on an app in very complex environments, then expanding that functionality in to upper airspace is an interesting prospect and a potential game-changer.

With UTM everything is automated – if you translate that to ATM, workforces will be affected.

If you look at technology today in the world of air traffic management there’s an overriding safety requirement. When I look at the degree of autonomy and digitisation available we really have a chance to move faster than we are in the world of ATM. This will certainly have a longer-term impact in the type of jobs within ANSPs.

I guess there may be a need for humans to take over control of drone operations in some cases but they won’t be people working for a centralised ATM system they’ll most likely be the drone operators themselves. Low level UTM for drones will be increasingly autonomous and I think they’ll maybe start off with having to file flight plans and then reporting against the flight plan automatically. But ten years on it will all be largely autonomous, because you’re not going to have a world where every single drone sticks to the flight plan.

But from what you are saying it might be quite a while before UTM suppliers are managing nationwide ATM operations. What will they do in the meantime?

UTM companies that have been set up so far are essentially venture-capital funded and they need to be fed either by investment funds or by revenue from service operations.  At the moment because there isn’t a large market for UTM there’s limited revenue coming in from service operations therefore most need to be fed by investors. If I look at the timescale by which the market will evolve – let’s call it 2020 – one of the real challenges is for those early start-ups to still be going by 2020. Or will they run out of cash? I think that’s going to be a challenge for a lot of them.

How is AirMap doing?

The rate of growth has been phenomenal – there are about 55 employees now. AirMap has raised over US $43 million and our investors include Airbus, Baidu, Microsoft, Rakuten, Qualcomm, Sony & Yuneec.

It’s encouraging from our point of view because these are the people who want to make drones part of everyday life going forward. We’ve done a lot of work around the world but challenges are the same for everyone: you’ve got to create the market.  So we’ve been working with ANSPs, with regulators, with people who have influence in terms of opening up the airspace.  It’s fair to say no two countries are the same. We’ve done work in Japan with Rakuten to enable deliveries, and we provide services to more than 130 airports in the USA.

What will AirMap be doing in five years’ time that it’s not doing at the moment?

In five years’ time, I think AirMap will be partnering with a number of countries to help them manage drone air traffic. The regulation will be such that beyond line-of-sight flight will begin to be routine.  We’ve been doing trials in the USA, Switzerland, and other locations and we think this technology has tremendous potential to help open the airspace for drones.


Richard Deakin is an aviation expert at PA Consulting Group

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