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Whose drone is that? DJI unveils UAV traffic tracking system

But 'Aeroscope' doesn't talk directly to existing aviation systems

DJI, the Chinese drone firm, is launching its own Wi-Fi based drone identification and tracking system, Aeroscope, aimed at placating regulators who want to put limits on small drone flights.

The move is to pre-emptively appease regulators such as the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, the EU’s EASA and US’s FAA as they look at the question of “unmanned traffic management”, or UTM.

“Countries have asked for a way to ID drones remotely while they’re flying and to find the operator of the drone. As we have with other safety or security concerns, we have developed tech that does that, well in advance of rules and regs that would require it,” Schulman added.

Aeroscope will operate on the 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz Wi-Fi bands and broadcast each drone’s “position, altitude, direction and speed, make and model, serial number, and any additional ID info that pilots wants to provide,” DJI’s policy veep Brendan Schulman told us this afternoon in Brussels. “Additional ID info” could include things such as the drone’s registration number, if that was a requirement, or contact details for the pilot if he wanted to include that.

Conceptually, the system will operate in the same manner as manned aviation TCAS (traffic collision and avoidance systems), albeit on Wi-Fi bands rather than the 1.3GHz frequency reserved for TCAS. This, DJI told us, is because its drones are already fitted with Wi-Fi radios and using those bands avoids the problem of a hardware upgrade across hundreds of thousands of customer devices.

Aeroscope will be rolled out through operating system updates, we were told, and form part of DJI’s core OS. The ground station for the system will be able to detect DJI drones within a 5km radius. Though intended for installation in a fixed location (for example, an airport), it can be put into a vehicle for mobile monitoring.

“There’s a movement towards this space, everyone’s trying to get into it and it provides some sort of solution,” Michael Perry, DJI’s managing director, told us in an interview. “Many others require external modules, whether it’s TCAS or ADS-B [Automatic Dependent Surveillance - Broadcast, a system whereby manned aircraft periodically broadcast their position] or their own version, or LTE or other requirements for online connectivity. The thing that’s important about this system is: adoption is easy for the user; they don’t have to buy anything else; it’s frictionless; and in terms of national regulators, it doesn’t require additional infrastructure.”

“For other flights, if you were to go to an empty field or in your backyard, you don’t necessarily need that info transmitted and stored in a government database for all time,” added Perry. “There should be some solution based on local monitoring of safety and security needs of that area.”

We pointed out to DJI that using the Wi-Fi bands doesn’t enable traditional manned aviation using TCAS to pick up nearby drones.

“That has been a key part of discussion with different [airspace traffic management, i.e. air traffic control] entities,” said Perry. “Typically they want some sort of separation between those communications channels. The challenge they have, lots of bleeps and bloops both on ATC and aeroplane, they want pilots to focus. If every single drone nearby shows up on aircraft radar, it’s going to be difficult to separate signal from noise.”

“I don’t think airlines want to know where every drone is thousands of feet below … keep in mind we have an altitude limitation,” added Schulman, who explained that the concept is for ground-based drone monitoring units to use the technology: “You’d have the officials monitoring the sensitive location, for example an airport, and then notify the pilots using existing methods like the radio.”

“In U-space, this is kind of a fundamental principle of UTM... the drone has to have some capability on its own of avoiding objects in its environment in addition to monitoring traffic in a complex environment, “ he continued, emphasising the system’s “low latency” of sub-1 second updates.

The system is available now, says the firm. DJI has been trialling Aeroscope at two airports over the last couple of months, we were told. A flight simulation capability, to allow new drone operators to practice their flights before doing them for real, is also in the pipeline. ®

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