The SOARIZON Team / October 15, 2019

Building the future of unmanned flight in the UK


The UK Department for Transport’s Connected Places Catapult (CPC) recently published its new report outlining its research into how an open access Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system could be developed.

The report’s main focus is to begin to prepare UK airspace for the growing commercial drone industry and allow it to operate safely and effectively, whilst not posing undue risks to other air and ground users

We are proud that SOARIZON® and Thales were invited to consult on this critical research to the further development of the technology during the unmanned aircraft age. This is a fantastic step towards commercial drone operations which can fly “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) of the user, the critical step to unleashing the potential of drone technology.

Why do we need UTM at all?

The use of drones is becoming more widespread, with innovation maturing from recreational and commercial flights into deliveries (such as Amazon Prime Air and defibrillators) and urban air mobility services such as air taxis (like Bell’s Nexus).

For all of these complex ecosystems to work together and drive the future of autonomous unmanned flight, there needs to be a unified UTM system, which is easy to access and implement across the board, for all stakeholders to manage and be managed, safely and securely.

Thales Group has already made great strides in shaping the requirements of a future UTM system. Frank Matus, Director of Strategy and Business Development, recently wrote in a paper for the Journal of Air Traffic Control by ATCA:

“The positive economic impact of drones is undeniable and a strong business case to support this operating density is desirable for many industries, including aviation. For economic impacts to be achievable, access to airspace for UAS operators will require a highly sophisticated, safe, and secure traffic management system that leverages increased automation technology that can someday support autonomous operations.”

A number of organisations have stepped in to innovate solutions in the UTM field, including Thales, which has global pedigree of providing Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems. The CPC’s report recommends an open access approach within which UAS operators, UTM and ATM service providers, public authorities and the regulator coordinate and exchange data.

What does success look like for UTM in the UK?

While it’s not likely to consist of drone ‘lanes’ as reported by some of the tabloid press, any UTM system developed will need to not only interface with traditional air traffic control model, but also with individual end users.

The proposed system will place similar checks, controls and flight reporting onto unmanned airspace as we are familiar with in manned flight systems.

The implementation of a robust UTM framework is just part of the wider opportunity around unmanned flight in the UK. To fully embrace BVLOS flight there are a number of further challenges to overcome, such as Airworthiness (similar to certification currently supplied by the FAA), Detect and Avoid capabilities, the impact of geofencing and geocaging and how all of those elements will interface with UTM.

On the challenge of airspace deconfliction, Matus wrote:

“Real-time deconfliction will also become more important as UAS density increases in subsequent years. The industry is working hard today to create detect and avoid algorithms for ground systems as well as airborne platforms that can work autonomously. Large-scale UAS integration will be at risk if this requirement cannot be satisfied safely and with confidence.”  

The CPC will now run a series of trials and demonstrations with industry representatives, including Thales, and the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority. The aim of this phase of work is to quickly mature the development of UTM in the UK.

Read the full report from the CPC: Towards a UTM System for the UK; Preparing the UK for the Commercial Drone Industry

Further reading: Addressing Near-Term Challenges of UAS Integration, Frank Matus, Director of Strategy and Business Development, Thales

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