Drone ATM – bridging the gap between UAS and manned aviation

Written by: Piotr Sirko
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The UK CAA, NATS and CANSO are all advocating a collaborative approach to integrating UAV/UAS (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle/Unmanned Aerial System - drone) traffic with manned aviation. This was the clear message delivered at a recent conference organised by the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. But a gap exists between a drone industry comparatively new to the complexities of aviation safety and regulation, and traditional aviation organisations who are charged with maintaining safety and efficiency in the skies. How can it be bridged?

The tone at the conference was conciliatory, conscious of some frustration in the UAS industry at a perceived lack of progress in implementing solutions that will enable the widespread use of UAV. There was general recognition that both the traditional air traffic management (ATM) industry and the UAS industry should work together. NASA was namechecked as a positive model for collaboration when developing the American UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system, bringing together all the relevant stakeholders in consultation, and with a potential implementation timescale of 2019.

It is worth noting that ATM and UTM systems have very different requirements and so it might be a valid solution for both to function in parallel. Indeed, NASA has taken a parallel approach with the development of the American UTM system, though information exchange between both is key.

Important differences exist between UTM and ATM, namely:

  • UTM will be highly automated and must be easily scalable to accommodate large variations in UAS traffic levels.
  • UTM will have various levels of quality of service and safety assurance depending on the hardware on the UAS, available communication infrastructure and external environment (urban/rural).

All of the industry speakers (Thales, Unifly, Altitude Angel, Thales, Inmarsat) stressed that UAV uptake will proceed quickly and traffic management systems will be necessary very soon. However, there are still no final answers on how to solve issues surrounding concepts of safety or certification. Similarly, questions remain about where responsibility will lie for autonomous software decisions.

Nevertheless, the "manned" aviation industry could learn a lot from the automation and agility of the UAS developers. What's more, many technologies which are being developed for use in UAS could benefit traditional airspace users including both general and commercial aviation.

For the UAS industry, there is a risk of going down blind alleys with their investments in control systems and software development, unless they gain an understanding and appreciation of the complexities of manned aviation and the regulations behind it.

There is certainly a desire and willingness to talk, which could be used to de-risk investments and speed up progress. Overall, both "traditional" aviation and the UAS industry could gain insights from each other and help to 'bridge the gap' between them.

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