Our mission has always been to support our customers with evaluating and introducing new technologies, systems, procedures, and techniques to safely exploit the unique resource that connects our world: our airspace.

Nearly 10 years ago, my colleague Philip Church and Alan Corner authored a white paper, somewhat ahead of its time, addressing the barriers to deploying Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). It is incredible to think how much has happened since then. Today’s leading drone manufacturer DJI was turning over $4.2m (against $2.7bn by 2017), the UAS (or ‘unified’) Traffic Management ‘UTM’ and U-Space concepts did not exist and ‘drone’ was solely a military term. Today we have: an industry worth anywhere from $10-30 billion depending on where the boundary is drawn, regulation in place, initial implementation of UTM services and a politically supported poster boy in the form of Urban Air Mobility (UAM).

A multi-dimensional challenge

As the original paper highlighted, the challenge to integrating UAS is multi-dimensional: the operational concept has to be defined, traffic management systems updated, safety cases made, aircraft systems certified against performance standards, procedures developed, the communications link defined, and public perception addressed. The problems are complex but, 10 years on, solutions are in sight.

Over the coming months we will be publishing a series of blogs highlighting the work we are doing today to advance the commercialisation of UAS. First up is UTM integration into airspace. UTM systems have emerged as a key enabler to UAS airspace integration, but they cannot work in isolation. U-Space is Europe’s approach to this challenge and requires sophisticated modelling approaches to explore and develop the operational concept. My colleagues in Toulouse have been working with SESAR and the French air navigation service provider DSNA on this, and you can read about the challenges and outputs of their work here.

Second in the series will be the work we have been doing to extend ANSP safety models to incorporate first-stage UTM services. As ANSPs begin to roll out UTM concepts, the reality of incorporating them into ATCO workflows safely is a challenge for safety and operational experts.

Establishing GNSS performance requirements for the drone industry is another dimension to the integration conundrum. Drone use cases are not the same as for traditional aviation, their navigation systems require different levels of GNSS performance. Our work with supervisory authorities has contributed to the understanding of this challenge, leading to standards against which equipment can be manufactured.

Building consensus on the role of the ground to UAS communication link has been a struggle. Historically we called drones Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) and this is indeed how they will operate at first. In the future they may be automated. Either way the pilot in command, whether human or machine, needs the same awareness and control authority as piloted aircraft. The role of the communication link in drones is unprecedented in aviation, and traditional aviation systems are simply not designed for this purpose. We will explore the options industry is evaluating and how they expect to progress.

Looking to the future: as the tech and aviation industry increasingly collaborate, work is accelerating across all these dimensions. We will conclude the series by reviewing the overall state of play and the next steps toward UAS airspace integration.

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