UTM, the key enabler of the drone economy

Background

The use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, commonly referred to as drones) is rapidly spreading worldwide. Their cross-sectoral applications lead the transition of legacy industries towards a sustainable economy, contributing to the decarbonisation, automation, and digitalisation of their operations.

The growing applications of drones imply a demanding scenario for the Air navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) and regulators (CAAs) around the world, to ensure maintaining the safe operations of conventional manned aviation while having the mandate to unlock the huge potentials of the drone economy. These institutions must ensure that the adequate systems and procedures are in place to enable a full stack of new drones applications while ensuring safety, security and continuity of legacy traffic and imposing new requirements on confidentiality, security, environmental impact to drone operations.

What’s UTM – a business outllok

The need to control drone operations and integrate them into the airspace drives to the UAS Traffic Management (UTM) concept. UTM is the set of facilities and seamless services required to ensure the safe and efficient movement of drones during all phases of operations. Indeed, the UTM concept is equivalent to the established Air Traffic Management (ATM) system for manned aircraft applications.

The FAA (UTM Concept of Operations) and the EASA (High-level regulatory framework for the U-space, U-space is the European term for UTM) have already developed their UTM operational concepts, which have similarities when defining the roles and responsibilities of the main UTM actors:

  • UAS Operator (UO): Manages, plans, and operates the drone (or drone fleet).
  • UAS Service Supplier (USS, FAA) or U-space Service Provider (USSP, EASA): Provides the UTM services, including (i) the identification, tracking, and monitoring of the drones; (ii) the airspace and mission management; (iii) the conflict resolution; and (iv) the emergency management; among other supporting services.
  • Flight Information Management Service (FIMS, FAA) or Common Information Service (CIS, EASA): Ensures the coordination and exchange of information between the UTM service providers, the ANSPs, and the relevant authorities, as well as the equitable use of airspace. The FIMS/CIS provider is responsible for (i) the registration of drones, USS-USSPs, and UOs; (ii) the UTM interface with ATM; and (iii) the drone AIM (airspace definitions, restrictions, no-fly zones, and NOTAMs).
  • Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP): The ANSP remains accountable for the separation assurance of manned aircraft in ATM-controlled airspace. The ANSP is responsible for the dynamic reconfiguration of the airspace to ensure the segregation of drone traffic from manned aircraft.
  • Civil Aviation Authority (CAA): The CAA is accountable for the safety oversight of the entire ATM-UTM ecosystem and is responsible for the certification and continuous supervision of the service providers, aircraft operators, and UAS operators.

In Europe, the U-space regulatory package has been approved in April 2021 by the European Commission and will become applicable in January of 2023. This package establishes the role and responsibilities of (i) the UAS operator, (ii) the CIS provider, and (iii) the USSP, as well as the capabilities required by the initial U-space services.

Unmanned Airspace sizes the global expenditure on civil drones and infrastructure in 2020 at USD 8.4bn. Whilst the UTM market represents per-se only the 2-4% of this market (increasing with the evolution of UTM capabilities), its timely implementation is a pre-requisite to unleash the UAS market, enabling the drones to operate BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) and within any densely populated urban environment (UAM).

For the time being, the FAA and the EASA have limited drone operations to the very low level (VLL) airspace (i.e. below 400ft AGL). Both jurisdictions define the minimum safe altitude (MSA) for conventional aviation at 500ft AGL, and thus drone traffic remains segregated from the controlled civil air traffic. Nevertheless, in the vicinities of the aerodromes and heliports, conventional aircraft descend to ground level and enter VLL airspace. These areas require special consideration. The FAA has already deployed the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) at 731 airports in the US, which provides small drone pilots (recreational and Part 107 pilots) with access to controlled airspace below 400ft. Similar capabilities will be available in Europe once the U-space initial services (U2) are deployed. Indeed, the long-term objective of the industry is to integrate drone operations into controlled airspace. This will require the UTM system into the ATM framework and blur the differentiation between airspaces.

Additionally, the provision of UTM services will require the deployment of a completely new infrastructure to guarantee Communication, Navigation, and Surveillance (CNS) services to unmanned air traffic. This may include 4G/5G coverage, landing aids at vertiports, cooperative surveillance technology to monitor the traffic, and non-cooperative surveillance systems to protect sensitive areas (e.g. airports, industrial facilities, governmental facilities…). The CNS infrastructure should be adapted to the actual needs of each territory to ensure striking the optimal balance between cost-efficiency and effectiveness of the implemented ecosystem, while keeping it scalable to adapt to the growth of unmanned air traffic foreseen in the next years.

Finally, some drone applications, such as air taxis for Urban Air Mobility (UAM), require the construction of a network of vertiports where they can land and take-off safely. These vertiports could create flight corridors between the urban and semi-urban or rural areas, contributing to the multimodality of the transport, decarbonising the sector with all-electric vehicles, and decongesting the urban centres.

The UTM challenge ahead: the regulatory framework

“A common framework is needed to facilitate the harmonisation between UTM systems globally and provide a stepped approach towards integration into the ATM system”, ICAO.

UTM shall interact in the short term with ATM and integrate with it in the long term. UTM systems should be therefore interoperable and consistent with existing ATM systems to facilitate safe, efficient, and scalable operations. Indeed, the FAA’s FIMS and the EASA’s CIS concepts include an ATM-UTM interface.

International harmonisation is also essential to allow the UTM industry developers to export their platforms and achieve the cross-border interoperability. Several international organisations are already working in this direction, defining the technical standards for UTM and exploiting the synergies with ATM standards.

States implementing a UTM system will need first to have a complete regulatory framework for UAS operations and UTM services (responsibility of the CAA). Then, the State will assign the leadership of the UTM implementation project to the CAA and/or to the national ANSP. The project will also need an industry partner to develop the UTM solution.

The State’s authorities will finally define the UTM framework, with the following two foreseeable scenarios:

  • The national ANSP is the provider of FIMS-CIS and the USS-USSP.
  • The national ANSP is the provider of FIMS-CIS and the USS-USSP market is open to competition.

The engagement of the regional authorities and municipalities will be key to ensure that the UTM system is deployed homogeneously in the country. These authorities should support the implementation of the UTM-CNS facilities and promote the vertiport network. Additionally, the military forces, law enforcement bodies, and emergency services may customise their role as users of UTM services.

ALG is directly involved in UTM R&D, standardisation, business valuation, and implementation projects at worldwide. We support the development of national strategies and regulatory frameworks that bring together the State’s central and local authorities, the national ANSP, and the rest of the industry ensuring their proactive engagement since the early definition phase of this new fascinating yet challenging endeavour of building together the future of unmanned aviation.

 


About the authors
Andrea Ranieri holds a PhD in Operations Research and is a Senior Engagement Manager at ALG. aranieri@alg-global.com
Antonio Silas holds an MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and is a Consultant at ALG. asilas@alg-global.com

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