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'The last thing I want is a software dev taking control of my craft'

Oi, Amazon. Still think you're going to do domestic drone deliveries?

The UK's Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy “don’t understand” how airspace traffic management will work in the future – and UK‑focused drone software startups might be closer to the government view than they like to think.

The “don’t understand” comment was made by NATS – Blighty's air traffic service – drone expert Phil Binks, speaking at yesterday’s Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) conference, organised by the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. The basic thrust of the conference was how to integrate drones into the already-busy skies over the UK.

“What would a UTM system look like?” asked Binks. “Could we have companies bidding for regions [of the UK]? Have a licence to operate in areas like this?” he continued, showing the audience a slide of the UK broken up into lozenges, representing localised traffic management monopolies. He also suggested UK airspace could even be broken up into overlapping sectors, for the purposes of managing drone air traffic.

From the air traffic controller’s point of view, Binks – a former RAF air traffic control officer – said the key thing would be to classify unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, the technical term for drones) in broad categories so they could be permitted or denied access to various bits of airspace.

“What is their desired mission? How do we understand what is the mission and what is the priority? Is a drone ever going to have priority over manned aviation?” he posited, drawing some raised eyebrows from the audience. What surprised them even more was his suggestion that hobbyists might be restricted to “certain areas where they can operate”, in the name of clearing airspace for professional and manned aviation.

“When we start to enter controlled airspace, we need to know more: what is that drone, does that person have the licence to operate in CAA [UK Civil Aviation Authority]-approved airspace among managed commercial flights? What’s that going to look like for a drone operator, mixing a drone into that airspace?

Solutions... yup, in that sense

Two commercial drone software companies, Altitude Angel (previously covered on El Reg here) and Unifly then gave presentations on how they’d implement UTM solutions. These were straightforward: both companies are startups; both offer operator-facing software for drone pilots; both want to expand that offering into the wider aerospace world.

JP De Muyt, chief commercial officer of Unifly, said his firm offers “drone registration and identification, drone flow management and validation and authorisation to fly from regulators,” while Altitude Angel’s Neil Kidd said his firm will be implementing the EU’s federated U‑Space drone airspace management concept once it is introduced.

They were followed by Mike Holdsworth of Inmarsat, who spoke in more general terms about the difficulties of tracking drones. Some had previously suggested adding ADS‑B transponders to drones. These are active devices fitted to powered, manned aircraft that allow world+dog to see where they are – the popular Flight Radar 24 website does all of its tracking through these Mode B transmissions.

“Isn’t the coverage at ground level pretty poor?” asked Holdsworth. “80 per cent of the US is covered at 1,500ft and below. At 500ft it kind of disappears.” He added that some aircraft “go on our [Inmarsat’s] network precisely because there’s no coverage” by other means.

Similarly, other speakers had raised the prospect of piping drone data through existing 4G and 5G LTE networks at ground level. “These all sound great when there’s GSM coverage but what do you do when there is no GSM coverage?” pointed out Holdsworth.

The cost of operating more than one central type of UTM system was also highlighted by the two commercial speakers. Kidd of Altitude Angel said: “If each country starts to do things on their own, then the cost of drone operations will start to get very expensive. The Netherlands allegedly asked a big drone manufacturer to implement certain features. They laughed and said ‘you’re just a country, we don’t deal with countries!’”

Data is, inevitably, the answer to the key part of the “how do we de-conflict airspace for drones” question. Many people during Q&A sessions suggested live drone GPS location data being fed into some kind of yet-to-be-built air traffic management system that drone operators can view. Indeed, many drones (such as drone maker DJI’s) already generate that kind of location data.

“If we wanted access to their database, they’d want to charge for it,” acknowledged NATS' Binks. “Is there tech out there where we can get that info direct, could that be free info? I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a way.”

Who’s in control of this disruptive device? Oh no, sir, not us

Then came the killer question during the Q&A session. Both the drone software startups had hinted that in the future their software could fly users’ drones away from prohibited areas, though Altitude Angel said “at the moment we don’t have anything that will take over control.”

“When your system takes over the aircraft, you are the operator, are you not?” asked one of the audience. At that point the CAA’s lead for UAS, Mike Gadd, stood up.

“Under the current legislative regime, the pilot is the commander legally responsible for flight. Issuing instructions to change the aircraft’s attitude in flight means you are now responsible. The level of integrity, compliance and certification required has just changed because [your software] is flying the aircraft,” he said. “If I’ve got a certificated aircraft and am flying with an extended flight control system, does that mean your UTM must meet the type certification baseline of that aircraft model? Given the vast range of certification model types, how would we meet that?”

Unifly’s De Muyt parried. “The answer today is not clear. Our version is to leave responsibility with the pilot in all circumstances. We are a software company helping UTM providers with that problem.”

Altitude Angel’s Kidd scaled back. “We’re not talking about putting 300 people in a 747 and emptying the cockpit, we’re talking about things that might be capable of delivering books.”

Gadd was not to be stopped in his quest to make it crystal clear that in a standoff between aviation law and tech companies, aviation will win every single time. “If we’re talking about automated and issuing commands, we’re talking way down the line as opposed to advising the pilot to change the trajectory of his aircraft.”

“I agree,” demurred Kidd, “but we should keep the end goal in mind: UTM as having multiple services and each of those capabilities having different abilities.”

Another nameless person from the audience then galloped up and thrust his metaphorical lance into the two startups. “If you do a short-term ‘let’s just do [beyond visual line of sight operations, BVLOS] and go from there’, you have zero chance of [succeeding] unless you throw it all away and go again. My experience of certification software is you will not throw it away and start again. You will fail.”

A representative of a commercial drone operator piped up. “Did I misunderstand? You’ll eventually be able to take control of the RPAS? As an operator where I put in place a framework, where I’m security-conscious and very much aware of the payload I’m carrying, the last thing I want is a software developer of a UTM system taking control of my craft.”

This sounded like a reasonable point, but Kidd came back with another equally reasonable point: “If that happens in the future when we have drones flying all over London, the security services will act in one of two ways. They’ll either ground all the drones so there’s nothing in the air, or, when their imaginations catch up, they’ll want to be able to take over all the drones – and at that point you won’t have a choice.”

Clearly the tech industry has educational bridges to build with the aviation and drone industries alike before the central challenge of drone traffic management can be sensibly tackled. ®

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