Emergent Tech

US startup wheels out EU-compliant drone traffic management app

And takes a swipe at American UAV regs

By Gareth Corfield

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An American upstart says it is the first company to implement the EU's vision of drone air traffic management – over the skies of Switzerland.

Airmap, one of many small companies around the world hoping to make a breakthrough in the elusive field of unmanned traffic management (UTM), has joined forces with Swiss air traffic control firm Skyguide to implement the EU's U-Space vision for UTM in the Alpine nation's skies.

Although Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it is a member of the EU Aviation Safety Agency (EASA); its skies are managed under the same rules as those of the EU countries surrounding it.

"After a year of successful collaboration with Airmap, we expect that the Airmap UTM platform meets the highest standards required for a Swiss U-space," said Klaus Meier, CIO of Skyguide, in a canned quote. The company's PR tentacle added that it "really puts US drone progress into perspective" in a not-so-veiled swipe at the American Federal Aviation Administration and its occasionally controversial AUVSI trade association-cum-rule-writing group.

The system will, the companies say, enable such things as dynamic geofencing, "instant digital airspace authorisation", real-time traffic alerts, live telemetry "for airspace managers" and unspecified "other services" to enable "simultaneous flights in shared airspace". All of these things were set out in the EU's Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research Joint Undertaking (SESAR JU; this is about as catchy as EU acronyms ever get), which was established to write an EU-approved set of rules for drone flights across the bloc.

Your correspondent would be most interested to see how an automated app could approve such things as a certified drone transiting Class D airspace. In the UK regulators have approved drone flights in some categories of controlled airspace, though the long-term ambition of everyone – EU, UK and the US – is to build a system that can reliably mesh drones into existing air traffic management systems.

In essence the problem is twofold: below 400ft the skies are reserved for small drones, while above 500ft it's manned aircraft and certified drones all the way. While one can effectively treat the sub-400ft band as a separate system from the rest of the sky, except for ATZs around airports, the true challenge that nobody has yet cracked is getting the two to safely meet.

The announcement, made at something called the World ATM Congress (standing for "air traffic management" rather than cashpoints), follows a 2017 trial of the Airmap tech in Switzerland.

So far the nearest thing the UK has to this technology is startup Altitude Angel, which has absorbed healthy quantities of VC cash but – as recently as last year – was meeting resistance from actual drone operators. ®

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