Is air traffic management fit for drones?

13 April 2017

With the drone market booming, it is becoming urgent to determine how drones can be safely integrated into European airspace by creating an unmanned traffic management (UTM) system.

On 6-7 April, over 250 representatives from across the aviation community attended a two-day Workshop on RPAS, entitled “Birds Eye View”, at EUROCONTROL’s Brussels headquarters.

The main objective of this event was to establish a common picture of the current European integration status of RPAS operations below 500 feet, before U-Space comes into effect. Current operations are mostly visual line of sight (VLOS) while several States have started beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations under certain conditions.

The workshop offered a great opportunity to identify how States, RPAS operators, air navigation service providers and industry are dealing with this and how it is affecting manned operations below 500 feet. Participants discussed the key short-term issues, shared how they are dealing with them, exchanged information and most of all learned from each other.

The participants agreed to pool their efforts in order to find a harmonised approach on how to safely operate both manned and unmanned aircraft below 500ft, at a pan-European level.

Frank Brenner, EUROCONTROL’s Director General, highlighted in his introduction that “solutions have to be found to ensure that this new industry can grow to its full potential while ensuring at the same time that safety is not compromised. The new technical solutions (identified for drones) will also bring benefits to our world of manned aviation like Detect and Avoid, to replace or complement the “see and avoid” principle that is still the basis for our safety.” He continued: “The integrated CNS solutions that are and will be used in the RPAS world will certainly find their way into the cockpits of our transport aircraft”.

The workshop started with the European institutions’ perspective. For DG MOVE (European Commission), represented by Vincente de Frutos, the main objective is to deliver an EU drone ecosystem by 2019. Mr de Frutos noted that:  It will help “to develop a system which is fully automated and can operate in a dense environment, considering single operators for multiple drones and ensuring that safety, security, privacy and environmental concerns are covered and that this legislation is future-proof.”

Natale di Rubbo, from EASA, stressed the need to have an accurate picture of the airspace situation, with the drone operators, on the one hand, who will be able to separate from other drones (autonomous or otherwise) and traditional airspace users, on the other. “We need to go beyond the visual line of sight. We see this as a forum where we can set the stage for the essential requirements that will make it possible to govern the future air traffic management system”.

Alain Siebert from the SESAR Joint Undertaking also noted that “a clear vision and roadmap on how we safely integrate drones into the airspace” is essential.

Budget is also at the heart of the debate as this innovative technology will involve costs.

Eduardo Garcia from CANSO stressed: “we need to fully understand the business models and the technology behind it. ANSPs could potentially use UTM technologies to foster the future of air traffic management”.

It was then the turn of the States to provide an insight into how they are handling the integration challenges. For Andrew Sage, NATS, “the first step should be education and awareness”. NATS is working closely with the UK CAA to spread the message to a new population of hobbyists and users, through consumer apps, retailers and public campaigns. “We encourage all of our fellow regulators and ANSPs to take similar steps and this new initiative from EUROCONTROL is a very welcome means of sharing experience and best practice”.

From the airspace user perspective, a UTM system is required. As underlined by Colonel Alban Galabert, from French DSAÉ, civil-military coordination is essential at national level, whereas at European level, State aviation issues and national security concerns have to be taken into consideration.

According to Felix Gottwald, from the European Cockpit Association: “any future UTM system should be centred around the needs of its human operators by providing an automated setting that enables a human-in-the-loop system supporting the user as much as possible”.

On the second day, key actors from the drone industry presented solutions based on different innovative ready-to-go products and services. At the exhibition, they also had the opportunity to showcase their new products and ideas on how to manage manned and unmanned traffic below 500ft.

The Workshop also featured break-out sessions that addressed five key themes:  urban operations; airspace assessment; beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations; aeronautical information; and C2 data link. Participants had the opportunity to share valuable information and experience.

In conclusion, Philippe Merlo, Director ATM at EUROCONTROL, congratulated the whole assembly, saying that this workshop represented “the first foundations of a joint European Action Plan”, even ifwe are only in the early stages of full automation transformation”. He concluded that European cross-border solutions with open standards are needed. 

EUROCONTROL has been contributing to the RPAS integration effort by developing the ATM RPAS CONOPS. Our effort on the ICAO, JARUS, EUROCAE and EC task forces shows our commitment to support the safe integration of these new airspace users.

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