Ground Control To U-Space-Autonomy In The Sky (Part 1)
On 16th June 2017, the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) Joint Undertaking announced the U-space Blueprint which sets out the vision for traffic management for drones in low-level airspace. It aims to enable complex drone operations with a high degree of automation to happen in all types of operational environments, particularly in an urban context. The new vision hints at a future where highly complex operations in the crowded airspace will be dealt with by autonomous operation of software and sensors in the blink of an eye… Will this new vision live up to its promises of delivering a solution to enable large-scale commercial operations with drones in a safe and secure manner? What are the challenges and what will be the law’s response?
Air traffic control for drones?
One of the biggest challenges of the safe integration of drones into the airspace is that of ensuring sound traffic management practices that take into account safety risks to manned aircraft, other unmanned aircraft and people and property on the ground. It is a common fallacy that UAS traffic management (UTM) is the same as air traffic control (ATC) for manned aviation. Unlike ATC in manned aviation, UTM does not depend on radio communications and radar detection and it performs its functions autonomously, relying on software and sensors, with no human involvement in the loop.
Why is traffic management for drones so important?
UTM is often seen as enabler of the so-called ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) operations, that is to say, operations where the pilot does not have the aircraft in visual line of sight (VLOS) at all times. In BVLOS operations, either the remote pilot flies the aircraft using instruments available on the remote pilot station or the aircraft flies completely autonomously.
BVLOS flights are seen as enabler of many commercial applications of drones such as package delivery, infrastructure inspection, mapping, remote sensing etc. The current policy approach towards BVLOS flights in the majority of EU Member States is restrictive and such flights are in most cases subject to outright prohibition. This is also the case in Belgium.
The promise of a safe and autonomous UTM system will enable fleets of drones to perform autonomous operations beyond visual line of sight, leading to the development of new services and the emergence of new markets. A sound policy and legal framework guaranteeing legal certainty and predictability plays a key role in this process.
The path to the U-Space Blueprint
While the EU has been lagging behind the US in terms of policy initiatives for drone traffic management, in 2016, following the Warsaw Declaration, the European Commission asked the Single European Sky Research in Air Traffic Management (SESAR) Joint Undertaking to update the European ATM Master Plan and to make a plan for the rollout of U-Space. As a result, in June 2017, SESAR published its U-Space blueprint to “make drone use in low-level airspace safe, secure and environmentally friendly.”
The blueprint is a policy document which outlines a vision of the future UTM system that will create new market opportunities and will allow the safe integration of drones in low-level airspace for a wide range of commercial and non-commercial operations.
What is U-Space?
The blueprint defines U-Space as a set of services and procedures relying on high level of digitalisation and automation of airborne and ground-based functions. The U-Space will provide an interface to manned aviation, air traffic management (ATM)/air navigation service (ANS) providers and authorities and should ensure operation of drones in all operating environments (both VLOS and BVLOS), for all types of missions, all drone users and all categories of unmanned aircraft systems.
The blueprint outlines a number of principles underpinning the U-Space, such as safety as a “first-class citizen”, scalability, flexibility and adaptability, equitable and fair access to airspace, risk-based and performance-driven approach to regulation.
The U-Space framework is not aimed at replicating the function of air traffic control but to “deliver key services to organise the safe and efficient operation of drones and ensure a proper interface with manned aviation, ATC and relevant authorities”. Examples of such interfaces include provision of data, supporting services for drone operators, tracking or capacity management. The types of services that will be provided within this framework are grouped in four main categories: foundation services, initial services, advanced services and full services.
The foundation services include electronic registration, electronic identification and geofencing.
The initial services aim at supporting the management of drone operations and could include flight planning, flight approval, tracking, airspace dynamic information, procedural interfaces with air traffic control.
The advanced services will support more complex operations in dense areas including, for example, capacity management and assistance for conflict detection.
The full services will offer “integrated interfaces with manned aviation” to support full operational capability of U-Space and to ensure a very high level of automation, connectivity and digitalisation.
The U-Space Blueprint does not go any further to describe details of how these services could be implemented. Nonetheless, one can already think of the myriad of policy and legal issues on the horizon… Check out my next article on what these issues might be and what policy makers need to keep in mind if the U-Space is to take off soon.
This article was first published in CiTiP Blog and is reprinted here with the author's full permission.