BETH STEVENSON looks at proposals for the development of air traffic management (ATM) systems to include supervision of UAVs in shared airspace.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)s are a well-established entity nowadays, however debated this topic may be among the aviation industry. While the use of them and the impact they have on manned aviation is a somewhat contentious issue, if governments and aviation authorities continue to move towards enabling their use, full and safe integration into airspace shared by manned aircraft is essential. 

To this end, air traffic management needs to be developed and applied for UAV use, taking into consideration the potential influx of this type of aircraft coming to bear, as well as the generally smaller size and lower altitude operational characteristics that come with most hobbyist and commercial UAVs.

Heard above the traffic

Can small UAVs coexist with other crewed aerial vehicles?  

There is currently a boom in discussion regarding unmanned traffic management (UTM), as aviation authorities, operators, industry and opponents debate how this is safely going to be carried out, when it is going to be introduced and how is it going to be controlled and paid for. “It is necessary to enable manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft…the end game is that if it flies, it needs access to the airspace,” Mike Gadd, business and technical lead for unmanned aircraft systems and cyber programmes at the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, told a Royal Aeronautical Society conference on the subject in May.

He added that there needs to be the stability of the predictable environment that is currently found with manned aviation and, ultimately, access needs to be made available to those that legitimately need it, while there must also be an appropriate level of safety, as well as security from cyber-attacks. “What we don’t want is a chaotic scene,” Gadd added. “Not all aircraft have the ability to hover and stop where they are.”


it should not be, or seem to be, a blocker, and that is essential. It is not ATM versus UTM; it is together that those two should work"

While the rules of the air are well established and UAV integration will have to adapt to that, there is currently no real provision for low-flying, slow aircraft like UAVs that are often flown in urban environments.

Gadd claimed that UTM would not necessarily have to be carried out at a national level like some other forms of ATM but could adapt the approach the UK currently takes in carrying out this control at a more localised level. “In the UK, we actually have quite a federated system,” Gadd said. “They work together in a way that allows them to be interoperable. ‘Do we need one single regulatory body (for UTM), or can we rely on a number of them for this?’ This introduces a number of challenges for a UTM rollout, such as how it is going to be funded and who is going to be responsible for managing each system, be it the government of a country, industry, or the individual users. Security then has to be added on top of this.

Flying safer skies

If UAV operations become cross-continental, as they are expected to be, UTM systems have to be able to manage the handover from one to another and the operator has to be able to adhere to the regulations of the country that the UAV is then flying in. There needs to be enough spectrum available to be able to deal with carrying out robust UTM services. Navigation, tracking and surveillance will have to be considered. However, Gadd notes that these are all standard considerations of manned aviation that UAVs must also abide by and progress is being made to facilitate enhancements in these areas, such as more satellite launches that will bolster navigation provision.

UTM is also too broad as it currently stands, Gadd argued, noting that there is a vast range of air vehicles being proposed, with varying levels of autonomy and different performance levels.



NASA’s proposals for integrating the unmanned aircraft systems integration (UAS) with the National Airspace System (NAS). (NASA)

Additionally, the Chief Operating Officer of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO), Simon Hocquard, told the conference that the prospect of UTM can be threatening to ATM users but called on all parties to work together, otherwise “it will be far more difficult than it needs to be”. He claimed that the introduction of UTM is a significant opportunity for those involved and urged involved parties to work now to stay ahead of the full rollout of UAVs in national airspace, so that they can help shape how this is done and not have to “rush to play catch up.” “I urge regulators worldwide to work with industry,” he said. “I see it in the US in particular, where everybody is sat in the same room trying to develop this as fast as possible and I think that type of model is essential in order to make this a success.”

Evolving airspace

Airbus Helicopters is set to explore UAV UTM systems with its Skyways drone delivery project in Singapore in 2018. (Airbus Helicopters).

Co-ordination and collaboration are key to this, Hocquard said, and it is the responsibility of the aviation industry to ensure that this emerging area grows and integrates safely. “ATM should not be, or seem to be, a blocker and that is essential. It is not ATM versus UTM; it is together that those two should work.”

Hocquard claimed that UTM should be built with consideration of both the good and bad experiences that the ATM industry has had to date, and these developments should then also be fed back to benefit the manned aviation world. Areas to consider include the bolstering of safety, an innovative approach to regulation writing, the financing of these initiatives and the way in which airspace is operated.

Regarding the latter, he noted that there will be times and places where separation of UAVs and other aircraft is necessary but there will also be ones where they will need to be integrated, which makes CANSO question if the current airspace setup will remain relevant as UAVs are used more. “Airspace may need to evolve with numerous new categories, perhaps,” he said. “I am not (necessarily) promoting that but the few categories that we’ve got – A, B, C, D, E, and G – may not be enough. “How it is currently made up may end up not being fit for purpose…this is about ensuring the integrity of the entire airspace and I think that is important with more users of the airspace coming up.”

Joining flight to UAS

Facebook's Aquila long-endurance UAV would fly above commercial airspace, but would still need to climb and descend through controlled airspace. (Facebook)

New members to CANSO include Google and Facebook, both of which are exploring the use of UAVs in their operations, which has changed the dynamic of the industry, Hocquard noted.
CANSO has set up an RPAS technology working group in response to the introduction of the disruptive technology, through which it is assessing airspace structure and operations and it is also creating air navigation service provider (ANSP) to consider for small UAS operations globally.

“Let’s grab this by both hands,” he added. “We need to work together, talk to one another, influence as one and create momentum as an industry because, if we don’t, we’ll be going around and around in circles.”

NASA first coined the term UTM when it kicked off research into low-altitude UAV traffic management some years back, with the ultimate aim of providing regulations for beyond-line-of-sight small UAV operations by 2020.

Some initial work has been carried out but April 2017 saw the UTM pilot programme begin that will continue until 2019 and test a number of different concepts and technologies to allow for a UTM rollout. With the US Federal Aviation Administration working alongside NASA, the authority will be able to use the research to inform regulations on UAV management.

Enhancing UTM

Leonardo is among several aerospace and defence companies working on UAV UTM. (Leonardo)

In terms of industrial efforts, there are a number underway to try and help develop appropriate technologies for UTM. Leonardo is one such company in March announced that it was ready to deploy its unmanned aircraft air traffic management system which, in March, is designed to safely manage civil UAVs at low altitudes of up to 150m above the ground in urban airspace.

This beyond-visual-line-of-sight system builds on Leonardo’s ATM experience and is a web-based, remotely-accessed concept that works with co-operative UAVs that have self-identification and self-positioning equipment installed. They can then communicate their location so others are aware of their status. “Building on the company’s extensive experience in the implementation of air traffic management systems and the design, development, production and operation of remotely-piloted unmanned aerial systems, Leonardo’s solution is the answer to today’s air traffic control requirements,” the company says. “The new system ensures the security and safety of unmanned operations, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in civil applications such as territorial security, infrastructure and environment monitoring also in case of natural disaster, remote sensing, search and rescue operations aerial photography and video recording.”

This concept can incorporate third party communications systems already integrated onto the UAV, with Leonardo taking an agnostic approach to how the system is operated, a company spokesperson told AEROSPACE.

Depending on user requirements, different services can be offered over the application-based system, including public registry of UAVs – if the country it is operating in requires it – and route and mission planning.

The spokesperson added that the system has been tested but could not offer any more information on when or where this took place. They added that there is not yet a customer for the UTM system, noting that the company expects not only air traffic controllers but also government, commercial, security, military and leisure operators to be interested in using the system. “The system is based on secure communications and has been designed to be secure by design, embedding the security concept from the design phase of the system,” they added.

Thales has also introduced a new UTM application to its ECOsystem ATM management offering, a system that allows ANSPs, airlines and airport operators to plan and monitor operations. The company has joined with Unifly to provide this new service. It will combine Thales’ ATM experience with Unifly’s UAV management concept to provide “the premier UTM application”, Thales says. “The solution will incorporate Unifly’s Validation Engine, a sophisticated software application that conducts real-time validation of drone flight plans, into Thales ECOsystem, a decision support platform for improved aviation operations,” Thales adds.

ECOsystem is designed to allow for applications to be built on top of it, having launched with an air traffic flow management layer in 2016. UTM is the second application and it will allow for UAV registration, pilot registration and flight planning, using geospatial and meteorological data to allow for this, plus situational awareness tools such as map overlaying, terrain viewing and 3D projections.

Oliver Rea, UAV traffic management solutions lead at Thales, told AEROSPACE that the cost of this type of operation is a concern at present, which is why the company is looking at services and cloud-based modelling. He said that typically, technology tailored to aviation is used in this field but the application approach will help the industry develop as UAV use continues to proliferate. “Nobody can predict what drone traffic in the future will be like,” Rea said. “The data generated and the number of UAVs flying will be unknown.” In addition, the type of user will be unknown, which is why a system that covers the spectrum of potential users is key. “Our focus tends to be on the professionals but we can’t forget about the leisure users in this,” Rea noted.

Introducing UTM

The future of integrated, shared ATM/UTM? (Unifly)

He added that the UTM application will officially rollout in 2018, with additional functions planned for the future. Initially, when it rolls out operators will be able to restrict an area in order to fly their UAV and in 2019 a tracking capability will be added so that authorities and those monitoring a certain area can track unco-operating UAVs, should an urgent no-fly-zone be introduced.

While the initial offerings for UTM are largely web-based at the moment, it makes sense that this type of operation can be modified in the future so it can adapt to the evolving UAV market. It is predicted that UAV use is going to continue to proliferate in coming years and a traffic management system that allows for this growth is essential.

Additionally, just because this is how UTM is going to be carried out in the short-term, it is not to say that this is how it will definitely be conducted in the future and inevitably large UAVs that are on par with manned aircraft will ultimately be integrated into ATM operations if they are to be operated in concert with their manned counterparts.

However, for small UAVs that operate at low altitudes where other aircraft do not tend to fly, the ability to register a flight plan and be instructed on where not to operate – all via an application on the operator’s phone – might just be sufficient enough to ensure that operations are carried out safely and legally, with no hindrance to anybody or anything else.

Beth Stevenson
4 July 2017