GuardianUTM, our airspace operating system for drones, has received 621 self-reported drone flights occurring within 5 km of UK airports. As the number of drones continues to rise, we explore some of the data and propose a solution to help manage the uprise in drones as they operate closer to manned aviation than ever before.
About a year ago, we released a preview technology called 'UTM Exchange', now a core component in our GuardianUTM airspace management operating system, which itself acts as a 'bridge' between the emerging 'UTM' world and the world of 'ATM'. UTM Exchange is a service which receives data from multiple apps, drones and companies - such as who is planning to fly their drone at a given location - and automatically shares that data with any other parties connected to the exchange whenever any two are found to be in 'conflict', i.e. they're overlapping in time and location. In this way, one of the biggest challenges facing UTM service providers is solved: now, companies can collaborate through a central exchange to receive (and supply) vital flight safety information to help keep the skies safe.
During the technical preview, which required all users to opt-in to sharing their (anonymous) data, various stakeholders undertook the simple technical integration with UTM Exchange. These include app developers, software manufacturers and drone hardware designers.
A global trial consisting of multiple stakeholders in Europe, in this post, we'll take a look at just the flight reports received in the UK in a short period of time, and give a brief insight into how this data can be used (and, in many cases is already being used) to help safely integrate drones into normal, everyday airspace. UTM Exchange has since evolved to include sharing manned aviation data, as well as weather and temporal restrictions (such as NOTAMs).
Airports are hotspots for drone activity
It may seem astonishing, but many more drones are being operated within the vicinity of an airport or aerodrome.
In a brief snapshot of our system, globally, our UTM Exchange service (our UTM to UTM broker service) received reports of 621 drone flights occurring within 5km of an airport. This is a staggering figure - it means an increasing number of the drone flights we track (on average) are by drone operators who are flying close to an airport. In many instances, those airports are not aware of the nearby operation (as evidenced by the rise in requests for our data from airports). It highlights the need for the solutions we're building to connect the drone world ('UTM') with the air traffic world ('ATM').
It's worth noting, however, that in the vast majority of cases, people who are operating their drone within these 5 km boundaries aren't doing anything illegal; in fact, a study of the flight report data indicates a high proportion of commercially-registered drone flights are occurring within these boundaries. Rather than preventing this type of drone use, as many are suggesting, airports could really benefit from the types of technologies we're building to enable more operations of this nature to be supported.
At Altitude Angel, we provide secure interfaces to real-time monitoring for airports and Critical National Infrastructure facilities, as well as integrated communication tools so that airspace managers can reach out to drone operators via SMS or phone call. Plus, we were the first company in the world to demonstrate connecting UTM software to ATM equipment at the World ATM Congress in Madrid earlier this year.
It's not just small airports, either...
Our data team put together some visualisations of drone flights occurring within 5 km of major London airports, and the results are certainly interesting (each green triangle represents the centre point of a self-reported visual line-of-sight drone flight). Note - for the purposes of these visualisations, we've excluded all flights that were outside the 5 km boundary of an airport:
The picture is similar right up-and-down the country, with Manchester also receiving a high number of operations within the 5km boundary of an airport:
Managing the rise in drone operations near important infrastructure
As time progresses, it's likely that the number of drone operations will continue to rise, and not just around airports. All types of facilities and critical national infrastructure on the ground are going to notice a rise in drone activity around them, and in many cases operational or safety requirements are elevated as a result. The key to helping to de-risk and 'normalise' this activity is to first improve the communication between the drone operator, and the airspace or security manager. In addition, visibility - ideally integrated with existing ATM infrastructure, is critical to ensuring that ATM/UTM can be successfully integrated procedurally, too.
That's where GuardianUTM comes in.
When deployed in an airport, for example, GuardianUTM can give an airspace manager the real-time visibility they need to be able to safely manage the risk of the nearby drone operation, and improves the communication capability of an air traffic controller by combining in-built communications tools with in-app messaging, or voice comms, using existing ATM equipment.
But, it's not enough to see them on a separate screen. Those operations have to be integrated to existing air-traffic management equipment in the airport environment, due to regulatory and training concerns. A limited number of airports are currently trialing the system we developed with Frequentis, which enables the flight data from drone operators to be presented on aviation-grade certified equipment, and managed by an air traffic controller.