One of the most complex of all will be long-range unmanned air systems (UAS) operations, where many different platforms with widely contrasting configurations will be flying a variety of autonomous and semi-autonomous missions in both controlled and uncontrolled airspace.
The good news is that by the time regulations, technologies and standards arrive to support these operations at scale – probably around 2024 – many air navigation service providers (ANSPs) will have had years of experience managing longrange UAS operations developed to be compatible with existing ATM systems and procedures.
One of Europe’s largest UAS operators is Norway’s Nordic Unmanned, which provides a wide range of operations from fishery inspection and environmental monitoring in the North Sea to more local UAS missions such as rail network infrastructure monitoring and LiDAR-scanning and photogrammetry. The company operates from several locations in Europe and beyond – its contract with the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) focuses on emission monitoring with the CAMCOPTER® S-100, and lightweight UAS support to operations from 10 other vessels in various EU countries with a 24/7 readiness.
For its maritime support missions flying in controlled airspace, the company identifies the safety margins of the drone and then works with the relevant ANSP to define restricted airspace areas which are then reserved for its operation, according to Bruno Boucher, Senior Vice-President, Airworthiness & Certifications at Nordic Unmanned.
“When we take off and land we inform them and are in constant communication with ATC,” Boucher says. “We have VHF radio like any other aircraft and our own VHF frequency in case there are search and rescue operations taking place nearby. This means helicopters from different countries know how to reach us and this allows us to stay clear of any potentially conflicting traffic.”
The company’s UAS platforms are also equipped with ADS-B and Mode S transponders for all-round conspicuity.
“But it’s not very practical because it restricts the volume of traffic,” Boucher adds. “We are working with the relevant authorities on introducing new detect-and-avoid technologies and procedures which will allow us to have a more coordinated approach with manned aviation, so we can all fly in the same airspace following the same rules and carrying similar traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) devices.”
The current procedure of reserving airspace around the UAS will change once active detect-and-avoid technologies become available. Then the challenge will be to co-exist with general aviation aircraft which do not carry TCAS devices – non-cooperative traffic may need to have their own reserved airspace at some stage in the future, according to the company’s vision of the future.
“We will need to follow the framework of the UAS traffic management system (UTM),” says Boucher. “First, you need to be visible – that’s probably the easiest thing to do. Then we will need to implement some airspace management systems to manage the lower airspace; there will be a need for a new communication network for non-cooperative aircraft. Today communication is with the pilot, but we need to move to a higher level to communicate directly with the aircraft and for that we will need standards, so the autopilot understands the commands in a similar way. For that you need standardisation of autopilots and communications.”
Around an airport and over land 4G and 5G communications will work, but in a maritime environment or over landmasses where network coverage is sparse, other forms of communication will be needed. Bruno Boucher is concerned that this is not a priority area for regulators at the moment, which means industry will have to take a more proactive approach to developing new regulations – not merely waiting for them to emerge, but to put forward proposals now so the priorities can be identified.
“We have UTM implemented around airports, which is great, because this is where you have the most interaction between manned and unmanned aircraft. But once you leave this fiveor eight-kilometre radius, it’s kind of a no-man’s-land and how should you manage this? The economics should also drive the priorities. For a number of years we had a vision of drones delivering goods within a city but now this dream is over because so many alternatives now exist. A bicycle is probably faster than a drone and it’s cheaper.”
Boucher believes the future priorities of drone technology research and regulation will therefore be very different from those envisaged just a few years ago, where the focus was on supporting small drone operations in urban areas. Larger drones flying longer-range missions will need both active and passive de-icing technologies. Electricity is no longer the only fuel under consideration – hydrogen alternatives will need to be researched and matured. The key will be to understand which systems can be relied on to work continuously, seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day, in other words building resilience and maturity into the sector to the same level which the civil aviation industry has come to expect.
“Our customers are also maturing,” he says. “They no longer ask for a particular type of drone for the job, they want the service the drone offers – image monitoring at a certain distance and over a certain time. So the focus will be more on the sensors and how we integrate them; how we get the data, the quality of the data and how that data is stored. For some customers who want surveys we can now offer 3D maps and analysis looking for cracks and variations in the structure. We have the data, we can do the analysis today, but maybe we don’t see anything so we will have to wait a year to do another survey and compare the results.”
The main priority for Bruno Boucher is the further integration of manned and unmanned aviation, which means a robust and precise and detect-and-avoid capability along with a communication infrastructure to enable further control and further exchanges.
“We would be really happy to see more regulation and new standards to define those exchanges,” he says.