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UNMANNED TRAFFIC management (UTM) is an increasingly prominent issue for governments, civil aviation regulators, air navigation services providers, airports and airlines.

UTM matters because of the numbers of UAVs now used in civil airspace for myriad commercial applications from agricultural survey and industrial inspection to aerial filming, mapping and supporting emergency services.

With the bold plans in an area broadly known as urban air mobility, automated air vehicles transporting passengers and drones dropping offcargo, more automated systems will require access to airspace.

This evolution, and the serious travel disruption just before Christmas 2018 caused by unauthorised UAV flights in the controlled airspace around London Gatwick Airport, means the safe, effcient integration of unmanned systems into the established air traffc network is an important matter on the agenda.

To address the issue, various UTM trials are under way. Here in the UK, Cranfield University and Blue Bear Research Systems are leading partners in a National Beyondvisual- line-of-sight Experimentation Corridor (NBLC) across the county of Bedfordshire. The corridor, which will run from Blue Bear’s headquarters in Oakley to Cranfield Airport, will see UAVs fly in the same airspace as manned aircraft to test beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) technologies.

The latest partners to join the initiative are Thales and Vodafone, who will demonstrate how 4G and 5G mobile technology can identify and track a drone in real time to ensure autonomous BVLOS safety, the mobile connectivity providing a secondary feed of location-based information to create a better picture of where drones are flying.

In May 2019 it was announced the NBLC is one of six projects in a Civil Aviation Authority initiative called the Innovation Sandbox to explore emerging aviation concepts.

Other participants are Amazon (whose desire for aerial delivery by drone has been widely reported), Altitude Angel (which produces airspace management software), NATS and Searidge Technologies (who partner on Artificial Intelligence and digital towers), Nesta Challenges (a collaboration looking at urban drone use) and Volocopter (a developer of electrically powered urban air taxis).

Lots of other UTM research is underway elsewhere. Many initiatives are under way in Europe under the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) initiative to research and develop future air traffc management (ATM) technologies. SESAR intends to create a framework it calls U-space to support services relying on digitalisation and automation to allow safe, effcient and secure airspace access for drones, in 2017 drafting a blueprint to make it happen, while Airbus now has a dedicated division for UTM research.

Over in the United States, NASA has an ongoing Technology Capability Level (TCL) research initiative into UTM. Its latest phase, TCL 4, focuses on drone operations in urban areas. Trials took place in Reno, Nevada, from March to June, and there will be more in Corpus Christi, Texas, in July and August.

TCL 4 follows previous phases that involved tests on geofencing, altitude, scheduling vehicle trajectories, BVLOS operations in sparsely populated areas, dynamic adjustments to airspace, contingency management and safe spacing between cooperative (responsive) and non-cooperative (non-responsive) UAVs over moderately populated areas.

Ben Marcus, co-founder and Chairman of AirMap, which manufactures a cloud-based data platform for UTM, observed to AIR International: “The typical aviation technology development lifecycle starts with R&D projects, then moves into standards and field trials and then eventually requirements and deployments. We’re still in the standards and R&D phases for the most part in UTM.”

Some UTM developments have, however, gone further and into the deployment stage. Switzerland’s Federal Offce of Civil Aviation, in collaboration with the country’s air navigation services provider Skyguide, will in July 2019 deploy the first national UTM system in Europe across the country’s airspace to support drone flights.

The AirMap platform will be used in the Swiss deployment. Marcus explained to AIR International how the platform works: “It is a service that has many functions. It all starts with a complete picture of everything happening in the airspace. [It shows] the past, present and predicted future, like obstacles, terrain, weather, flight plans, restriction information, regulatory information.

“We provide safe and effcient routing for drones, airspace authorisation, a mechanism that allows drone operators to communicate with authorities [and] a remote identification system so authorities are able to identify who’s flying in the airspace. We have traffc alerts, so drone operators are aware of other aircraft in their area of operations.”

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has implemented a Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) for small UAVs. The LAANC provides access to controlled airspace for drone operators by providing near real-time processing of airspace authorisations below approved altitudes and automating the approval process for those authorisations

Requests are checked against multiple airspace data sources in the FAA UAS Data Exchange such as temporary flight restrictions, NOTAMs and UAS Facility Maps. If approved, operators receive authorisation in near-real time. According to Marcus, around 100,000 drone operators have already put in requests to operate in controlled airspace with their UAVs since the LAANC was introduced last year.

The various R&D projects, the national UTM deployment in Switzerland and LAANC all show just how busy the UTM sector is, but with so many parties involved in the segment, and different places at different stages of R&D and deployment, is there a need to align standards and regulations better?

Marcus acknowledged: “We would like to see more coordination. There is alignment on the core principles – service-oriented architecture, structure where necessary, flexibility where possible, third-party providers delivering most of the services and having interfaces between them – though there is nevertheless some variation and that is a challenge.

There is a need for a unifying body. It’s human nature; people have their own ideas. The core principles tend to be quite common. There are countries with examples and other countries tend to follow those examples and that’s useful, but it’d be good to have some more.”

Trials by NASA of UAVs in urban environments are one of many unmanned traffc management initiatives.