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Flying robots are great... until they meet flying humans, anyway

Drone traffic management, or 'how to regulate the skies'

The skies of the future could be divided into “manned” and “drone” segments as regulators struggle to work out how commercial drones should interact with traditional human-piloted aircraft.

That was the most startling line from yesterday’s Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic seminar, held at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s HQ in London.

“Three miles’ separation in controlled airspace would be ridiculous for two aircraft less than the size of the desk I sit behind,” said Simon Hocquard, COO of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation – a global air navigation organization based in The Netherlands – referring to the standard lateral separation distance for aircraft flying along airways and under supervision from air traffic controllers.

The basic problem is simple to grasp: with the explosion in the number of drones of all sizes, from prosumer-sized quadcopters used for photography to larger unmanned aerial systems used by commercial companies, the skies are getting ever busier. How do you safely integrate all these robot aircraft into the existing airspace control setup, which evolved over decades of exclusively manned aviation?

Regulators including the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the EU Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) have all been pondering this. Devising a solution to the problem, however, is nowhere near as easy as understanding the scale of what needs to be done.

“What capability are we looking for?” asked the CAA’s unmanned aircraft lead, Mike Gadd. “If that’s to help us fly beyond visual line of sight in all environments, then we can start to see the degree of capability that is necessary. We start to ask questions like ‘is it like [traditional airspace traffic management] ATM’ or is it different? What we don’t want is a chaotic scene.”

“Speaking as a regulator,” continued Gadd, the CAA is looking at one or more versions of ‘advise, inform or command architectures’. In order, these will either: let the drone operator know he’s approaching restricted airspace; tell him that he should do something (eg, turn away or land); or take direct control of the drone and fly it away from the restricted area.

“Who should be the national regulatory body? Do we need one single regulatory body or can we cope with different regulatory bodies?” he asked. Most importantly: “How do we pay for this thing? Is it purely commercial-driven? Is there going to need to be some infrastructure aspect that the State buys into? If we need massive amounts of fibre-connected backbones to move the data around, do we need to persuade the current Openreach approach to upgrade to a higher standard or do we look for the interested parties to do that themselves?”

So far, regulators are asking the questions and seeing what responses industry comes up with. Gadd noted that the government’s pockets are relatively empty and so the answers will have to come from the regulated community itself. As fellow speaker Phil Binks, air traffic control company NATS’ in-house drone expert, said: “We need to embrace this technology because the technologies coming through RPAS [remotely piloted air systems] can improve manned aviation safety.”

The structure of the unmanned traffic management system hasn’t yet been decided, he added. Are the UK’s airspace regulators “going to go down the mobile industry route, where you have lots of surge operators in the same area? Who’s going to provide the best service at the best price for your product?”

The questions are open and unless industry gets in there to answer them, it might not like the answers that uninterested governments come up with. ®

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