Stepping stones to an integrated airspace
The huge rise in the use of drones has shown just how quickly technical innovation can disrupt the equilibrium in the aviation industry.
By Phil Binks, Head of ATM at Altitude Angel
In this blog post, we catch up with Phil Binks as he reflects on some of our earlier successes, opines on the future, and how we might achieve a more integrated airspace using the technologies we have available today.
"As drone use continues to grow, operators will demand greater access to the airspace, often without full consideration – or full knowledge - of the potential implications to other airspace users. We are seeing new entrants developing business models that require access to the airspace without a full understanding of the rules (or perhaps a belief they can get them changed to suit their individual needs), and that’s before – as a society – we start to think about incorporating Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight drone operations regularly and routinely in our skies.
From the evidence we have today we can foresee that as drones continue to evolve they will further challenge the aviation systems and before long they will need to be accommodated into all classes of airspace. Until this point we can’t consider them as fully integrated with all other airspace users.
This post is not about providing a definition of Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM), or a detailed critique of what should and should not be part of a national UTM system. We will, however, position some of the core capabilities in our GuardianUTM Airspace Management Operating System (or GuardianUTM O/S for short) in enabling a flourishing drone services economy to emerge, with rich, robust and trusted data and the ability to provide the critical integration with ATM networks in a trustworthy and consistently reliable way.
We do not believe that it is necessary for all classes of drones to be tracked in every location in a country, all of the time. Flipping this around, only drone operations conducted by certain classes of drone in certain locations are likely to require management in some way. This is broadly analogous to how traditional manned aviation traffic is managed today, with controlled and uncontrolled airspace, and a well-known set of rules governing entry and navigation through each.
By carefully selecting areas in which drone traffic is to be managed more actively, or where there are additional requirements placed on drones/drone operators in certain areas, a country can more rapidly embrace the positive aspects of drones while pragmatically handling risks associated with negative use.
To cater for a regulatory environment that sets up certain areas and classes of drone operations as regulated and therefore requiring some kind of UTM, it is necessary to enable data and communication exchange between the existing ATM service providers, and the emerging unmanned traffic service providers.
It is largely impractical to assume that a commercial entity should control the access to the airspace at a low level, or “airspace for drones”. In practice, a country will want to protect the sovereign security of its airspace and not divulge certain surveillance aspects to 3rd parties, but more pragmatically, commercial entities will compete and in a competitive scenario, one can imagine preferential access or the most efficient route from A -> B being awarded to the drone being managed by the company managing the airspace, not the company requesting transit through it.
In this new environment, therefore, it stands to reason that innovative ANSPs – the current Airspace Navigation Service Providers - would become channels for the outward distribution of important safety data to drones and drone pilots and are – at least until new regulated entities are envisaged – the likely single national provider of tactical and strategic de-confliction.
This model will enable an industry of emerging UTM service providers to simply integrate with the national UTM service to acquire all the basic data and regulatory information required, to "programmatically" request access to the airspace and a manner that is guaranteed to be fair and efficient, and a manner which can provide them with information relevant to the navigation process.
Aren’t ANSPs monopolies?
While many argue an ANSP is naturally 'monopolistic', it can be argued that a centralised entity of some description would be needed to ensure safe, equitable and efficient access to and navigation through the airspace. Whatever entity this is, it performs a vital unbiased and trusted role in airspace security and ensures safe movement whilst respecting necessary priorities.
As ANSPs are currently the manned air traffic orchestrators, it seems logical for them to continue to use this expertise to provide similar separation services to drones. The alternative requires a national authority to yield real-time aircraft surveillance information to potentially hundreds of third parties to provide the level of safety required for drones to avoid each other as well as manned aircraft. If this is palatable, then technical solutions do exist that can provide this, but more often than not, Altitude Angel hears from aviation authorities and ANSPs that are concerned about yielding this data for good reason.
There are many countries and some ANSPs that see UTM as solely ‘drone management’. We have a slightly different approach; the ‘U’ in UTM standing for ‘unified’ – as in, Unified Traffic Management. We believe that UTM and ATM cannot be considered as wholly independent of each other anymore; a siloed approach when the airspace is a single common resource. We can only maintain safety by having a common view; a ‘unified’ approach.
Some ANSPs are now championing open access to the skies by drones
It was only a few years ago ANSPs and NAAs ("National Aviation Authorities") were struggling to understand how they could manage the challenges and in some cases, the ‘threats’ posed by drones. At that stage here in the UK, the CAA believed the most appropriate solution was to educate these new entrants to aviation: certainly, this is an important factor, but not all means of education were - or still are - equal.
A few years ago, there were a few companies building safety apps to distribute essential educational information about where it is safe - or not - to fly one's drone. But the information was largely unreliable. Data for aviation works well for manned aviation, but it doesn't tend to work very well for drone operations.
From day one, we purpose-built our own aeronautical data processing platform with drones in mind, meaning all of our apps had the most relevant, accurate and up-to-date information available. But, it had to go beyond that. In the future, when we rely increasingly on the data for automated navigation, the system would need to have strict quality and data governance controls built-in. Data lineage would need to be audited. Updates authoritative. Without good, reliable and timely data, the apps built upon them could never be considered 'trustworthy'; this is why we differentiated ourselves by becoming so intensely focused on quality, accuracy and ultimately: safety.
Even today, the quality and relevance of our data sets us apart from all other UTM service providers.
The UK’s most used drone safety app, from NATS, powered by Altitude Angel
Joining forces with NATS and supported by the CAA, we developed and launched the free safety app ‘Drone Assist from NATS, powered by Altitude Angel’ to improve awareness and education of drone operators. Because it connects to GuardianUTM , the app has access to the richest and most accurate safety data available. By ensuring the data was based around UK rules and regulations, drone operators were finally able to easily identify ground and airspace hazards to help them to stay within the rules. Just twelve months after its launch, the Drone Assist app had over 55,000 registered users and 15 million interactions, making it the most widely used airspace app in the UK. We are working with ANSPs in other countries to provide similar solutions.
Safety is two-way, but most apps are one-way
For us, this was only the first step and we quickly looked at how we could share our drone information with other airspace users and, importantly, airspace managers, helping to improve situational awareness and bringing the industry a step closer to being able to unlock the potential in drones by helping to address one of the risks: visibility.
The incorporation of a voluntary ‘Fly Now’ report enabled drone pilots to ‘announce’ where they were flying by simply pressing a button in the app, which “locks on” to the user’s position via the GPS in their phone and establishes a cylinder with radius 500m around them. We quickly had over 12,000 flight reports generated via this feature, but we wanted to take it a step further and offer commercial and more serious drone pilots additional and advanced planning options.
The next development was to focus on two key tasks: firstly, allowing drone operators to plan and notify their flights in advance of the operation (the initial version only supported ‘fly here, right now’) and secondly, to enable airports and other airspace managers to establish areas of interest where they could receive information on those reported drone flights. The aim was to open up a communication channel between airspace managers and drone pilots.
Helping to deal with the surge in drone flight requests near airports: looking at the future of ATM/UTM integration via GuardianUTM O/S and electronic flight strip systems
A few months ago, we wrote a blog post called ‘Drone operations on the rise at UK airports'. The rapid adoption of drones by professionals and the increased use of a flight planning system – if not handled correctly - could potentially overwhelm airports, require significant personnel to manage and thus have a reasonably noticeable impact on day-to-day operations. This is especially so when permissions are required in order to fly a drone in a particular volume of airspace.
Pre-empting this issue, we began working with Frequentis (a strategic partner) who manufacturer smartStrips®, an Electronic Flight Strips solution deployed in many of the world’s busiest airports. When paired with smartStrips®, Altitude Angel automatically converts a drone flight plan/fly now request into an electronic flight strip for routing to flight-strips.
The controller, via the electronic flight-strip (similar to those used to keep track of manned aviation) can now interact and manage drone activity through the electronic flight-strip system – which is a crucial step in UTM/ATM integration, because it doesn’t require any new hardware to be deployed in the airport environment.
Powered by our GuardianUTM O/S, the system carefully monitors incoming flight reports and evaluates them according to a set of rules configured by the airport to choose which can be automatically approved, which must be rejected, or which require the attention of multiple stakeholders before a decision can be issued. The system has been designed to inform the controller of drone activity relevant to their task.
Bridging the gap between UTM and ATM systems, Altitude Angel utilises the System Wide Information Management (SWIM) concept to facilitate the significant data processing, quality controls and protection against cybersecurity concerns. However, sharing data between UTM and ATM is not the only objective: GuardianUTM O/S also exposes configuration options to permit data exchange between UTM systems. There are many authorities and companies wanting information on the activities taking place in the airspace around them, whether it’s a private infrastructure company (such as a rail operator or power line company), a local authority (such as a council) or an airport; data needs to be shared.
What does the future look like?
We envisage that there will be many UTM Service Providers in the coming years, but it’s likely a nation will have only one backbone UTM to ensure fairness and deliver a single air-situation picture. GuardianUTM O/S provides national authorities with the choices about which entities it chooses to run different aspects of the overall UTM service, for example – registration vs. traffic separation, routing and navigation vs. weather.
Managing a UTM eco-system where a number of UTM/U-Space services exist, within one area or country is complex. There is a need to ensure appropriate data sharing, ensuring everyone/system has a common view of the airspace.
Similarly, there is a need to prioritise different operations, e.g. urgent medical over routine parcel delivery, thus some priority resolution is necessary.
Finally, safe and efficient utilisation of the airspace requires a high degree of predictability of both manned and unmanned aircraft. We believe a central service which provides the essential national safety assurance and real-time decision making that UTM systems can rely on is necessary. Separation, if left up to the hundreds of smaller companies who really only care about their primary operation – not building global traffic avoidance systems – can simply connect into the foundation layer, whereas larger companies can feel confident that they can de-conflict their own fleets with the assurance the national airspace picture will be digitally available to them.
GuardianUTM O/S provides a country with a mechanism to define or update rules or regulations and enforce temporary restrictions in a manner that can be used by all UTM service providers, preventing any possibility that dependent UTMs are out-of-date.
This foundation system is then enabled to carry-out critical functions such as flight approvals, access to airspace, traffic separation services and registration, enabling a rich drone ecosystem to flourish.
We envisage a time where multiple service providers - in ATM and in the UTM space - work alongside each other, but we must get the foundations right, and that's what we're here to ensure."