Paving the way for The Drone Age: pioneering drone traffic management
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are significantly shaking up the airspace.
While today’s drone technologies are already infiltrating our personal and professional lives – from consumer leisure to European defence and public safety, business and agriculture – tomorrow’s UAVs have culture-shifting, sky-high aspirations to carry commercial cargo, and even people.
In short, this projected multi-billion Euro industry represents the frontier of new-age air travel, with as-yet untold possibilities for, and impacts on, airspace. Yet it has problematically lacked the proper infrastructure to record, manage and monitor drones, and their airspace activity.
This is about to change, however. SITAONAIR, in collaboration with skyguide, AirMap, senseFly and PX4, and with the support of the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation, has developed a drone registry as the foundation layer for U-space capabilities. The U-space project will bring Europe’s first registry for UAVs to market to support the growing drone economy and aviation industry.
Following the success of Europe’s first live demonstration of these U-space capabilities, SITAONAIR CTO Gregory Ouillon explains SITAONAIR’s role in delivering these vital functionalities. Below, he lays out the digital infrastructure, services, and procedures U-space will encompass to support safe, efficient and secure access to European airspace for millions of drones – and how we have set the foundation for potential global drone registry.
Why is now the time for a drone registry?
Gregory Ouillon: We and the European Union anticipate an explosion in the number of drones flying in our airspace over the next 20 years. That’s not just for leisure pursuits, but most importantly, commercial drones for retail, surveillance, inspection, agriculture, industry and more. It’s very clear the airspace is going to become much busier with drones, yet existing European and global legislation around this activity is still immature and disparate. We believe that technology is a critical enabler to help regulators and agencies define fit-for-purpose regulatory frameworks that will enable all stakeholders to interoperate in the drone eco-system whilst ensuring safety and compliance.
A foundation component of this technology is a secure and trusted registry, ensuring that Drone pilots and UAVs can be uniquely registered and identified, so that these identities can underpin all phases of the drone mission and data exchange between the stakeholders. Such registries, with the participation of the whole eco-system, will unlock the opportunities drones present, and will deliver efficient, yet strong, regulation.
How and why is SITAONAIR involved in the U-space initiative?
Greg: SITAONAIR is perfectly placed to deliver a global drone registry service, as called for by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), for the drones of today and tomorrow – the new age aircraft. The SITA Group is already the long-standing joint owner of Aviareto, the ICAO-mandated International Registry of Aircraft Assets. Aviareto captures information on all aircraft, including ID numbers, ownership, and routes travelled. SITA is also the parent company of Regulis, which operates the International Rail Registry of the Luxembourg Rail Protocol of the Cape Town Convention on Interests in Mobile Assets.
The drone registry project originated within SITA Lab, with a team of experienced, forward-thinking developers exploring technological innovation to unlock a world-first in drone traffic management. Now, SITAONAIR, as a world leader in aircraft communications and flight operations for commercial aviation, is going to take it to the next level. We obviously see a lot of similarity with drones and we anticipate a future blurring of the boundaries between commercial aviation and drones for airspace and operations, with a lot of innovation coming from the drone world into aviation, and vice versa.
What are the current issues around drones or UAVs?
Greg: You now regularly hear stories of ‘near-misses’ where amateur-operated drones or UAVs have flown too close to aircraft during take-off and landing. Instances of people excited to film aircraft close-up, but sometimes getting a bit too close. There is also an issue around drones breaching ‘no-fly’ zones around secure or sensitive sites. A few months ago in France, for example, quite a few drones were reported to have been flying close to nuclear plants. Most often, drone pilots are not aware of the regulations, and the procedures for Air Traffic Control, states or municipalities to communicate these regulations and provide authorization, are usually complex and cumbersome. With the predicted growth in the number of government and commercial drones, this system as it stands cannot scale. It would unavoidably lead to more restrictive regulation that would slow the drone opportunity.
How will the U-space registry capabilities work?
Greg: The registry aspect will enable drone operators – whether that’s a member of the public or an entity operating drones for business purposes – to register themselves as pilot, and their drones for public record, linking their identity, details, and their drone serial number, model and operation modes, to unique identifiers delivered by the registry. Various stakeholders, from ANSPs and civil aviation to drone manufacturers and service providers, will all will be able to access the information they need to ensure the safe interoperation of UAVs within the airspace.
Once a drone has been registered within U-space, any information pertaining to that drone in terms of flight plan, monitoring by flight tracker systems, previous infringement of no-fly zones, etc., is recorded against that drone’s unique identifier. Like a passport number, it will act as a unique key by which all aviation systems will be able to identify that drone. We are building the register using blockchain software, which allows you to write a secure, unforgeable ledger to record this information, and give various stakeholders a view of the drones operating within their airspace.
What are U-Space’s current and projected capabilities?
Greg: At this stage, we have successfully demonstrated both U1 and U2 capabilities. U-space stage one, or U1, offers significant functionalities of e-registration, e-identification and geofencing. We anticipate the U1 U-space capabilities will be fully established within the market by 2019. We will then bring U2 to the market, with flight planning, flight approval and dynamic airspace awareness functions. These are the first two of four official planned milestones in the evolution of the U-Space initiative.
What drone innovations are expected on the immediate horizon?
Greg: SESAR’s European Drones Outlook study forecasts an incredible uptake of drones in the agriculture, energy, delivery and public safety and security sectors. We’re talking over 100,000 drones to enable precision agriculture to drive greater productivity; some 10,000 drones to perform preventative maintenance inspections on energy infrastructure, removing risk to personnel. Then there’s feasibility for premium delivery services by drone to roll out, enlisting around 100,000 UVAs to transport urgent goods, such as emergency medical supplies, to where they are needed.
Drones present a fantastic potential resource for emergency services in locating endangered citizens and assessing risks during civil protection and humanitarian missions.
For our industry, pilotless planes – drones and UAVs built to carry people – are the holy grail of future air travel. The stuff of science fiction made real. For this amazing advancement to become our socioeconomic reality, it needs the regulatory infrastructure to underpin it. The U-space, and its drone registry capabilities, is already paving the way.