Drone ATM – a tug of war?

Written by: Piotr Sirko
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Fresh back from a workshop hosted by SESAR, it is still unclear who will prove most influential in setting the standards and services for drone air traffic management.

The EU (through SESAR) is developing a set of services and procedures to help drones access airspace safely and efficiently. These digital and automated services will both support routine drone operations and allow coordination and information exchange with traditional aviation, ATM/ANS service providers and authorities.

But automated flight will also require the implementation of new standards, that will enable drones to automatically sense and avoid obstacles, other drones or airspace users.

Since drone manufacturers and trade associations are forging ahead with their own solutions independent of the usual regulatory bodies (national regulators, EASA or EUROCAE), it begs the question: who will be most influential in developing the standards for drone ATM in Europe?

SESAR's answer to drone ATM: U-space

U-space, will create a set of services and procedures which will eventually enable the creation of an automated Drone Air Traffic Management system in Europe. It will rely on data exchange (likely via System Wide Information Management) with traditional air navigation service providers to ensure that all relevant parties have knowledge of the position of both drones and aircraft. It will be highly reliant on connectivity and automated data exchange and should function seamlessly across European country borders. Ad-hoc changes in air space availability will be communicated to drones already in flight and drones will be rerouted as necessary by the automated air traffic system.

The U-space concept, which is being developed with the involvement of the industry, is not unique. Similar systems are being implemented in the US (UTM – UAS Traffic Management) and reportedly already function to some extent in China. However, U-space is still in the early stages of development and important issues relating to financing and the extent of State support are yet to be resolved.

Drone industry pressing ahead with own standards

In addition to the services which will be developed as part of U-space, standards and technical solutions will be needed to ensure that drones can effectively communicate with each other, their operators, and function autonomously under a range of environmental and operational conditions. Not satisfied by the (sometimes lengthy) process of rule and standard creation by traditional aviation rule-makers and regulators, drone industry representatives have already banded together and created groups which will propose standards and regulation for drones and drone communication (independently of such organizations such as EUROCAE, ICAO or CAAs). These groups also lobby on behalf of the drone industry with the relevant EU and national law makers. Representatives of many groups were present at the workshop including:

Global UTM Association, Drone Alliance Europe, Drone Manufacturer Alliance Europe and UVS International. They had a clear message: that standards should be created by industry itself and that leading standards will emerge naturally (similarly to how VHS dominated Betamax or HD-DVD lost out to Blu-ray in videos) and only then potentially become mandated by regulators.

Influential backers

These groups do not work in isolation. They are supported by influential backers such as Amazon and Google and have connections with a number of Air Navigation Providers. In addition to aviation stalwart Airbus, which is developing several autonomous or semi-autonomous personnel transport drones and currently is running a "last mile" drone delivery demonstration project in Singapore, an interesting development is the growing involvement of some large IT companies not traditionally invested in the aviation industry. Thus, we met or heard from Nokia, Deutsche Telekom and NXP Semiconductors (former Philips division) representatives. All of them are working on technologies which will enable drones to communicate and sense each other and other obstacles.

Tug of war?

The drone industry is well funded and influential, however it will eventually have to coordinate and come to agreement with parties which might have competing interests. These entities, which also might prefer to use other standards or solutions include among others: manned aircraft operators and Air Navigation Providers, who traditionally were the sole users and managers of air space. The industry will also have to win over regulators and ultimately gain State backing.

It remains to be seen how relationships between these groups will develop. We'll keep you posted.

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