“The real challenge of UTM is to define a single system with different users and communications methods”

Christian Struwe is Head of Public Policy Europe at DJI.

DJI has its own UTM solution Aeroscope – what has been the market response to this?

Aeroscope was launched October of last year. It is our offer for mobile identification – primarily for law enforcement but also for any legitimate party who has the right to know who is flying in sensitive airspace areas such as around airports and in controlled airspace. We are now seeing in the USA a strong focus from government agencies apart from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for industry to come up with a solution for remote identification. Aeroscope offers you direct access to the telemetry of the drone and comes at no cost or additional modules for the drone operator – it is undefeatable and will work automatically as long as there is a C2 (command and control) link with the drone. It gives the airspace manager the drone’s GPS coordinates, type of the drone, serial number of the drone, operator identification – or registration number if you are based in the country which has gone down that road – as well as the location of the pilot.

UTM is still relatively undefined and we are still in something of a holding pattern but in general I would say the uptake has been pretty good. We do have some major airport installations running and we’ve had good sales to the law enforcement community.

Once you go beyond line of sight (BVLOS) how will Aeroscope work then?

The way AeroScope works is to receive a certain part of the communications link – which also works BVLOS. Once the industry starts going real BVLOS over extended ranges – or towards autonomy – then when we will be looking at different command and control links from those of today. This will require integration of new technologies in AeroScope or other solutions for drones flying those operations.

What do you think are the biggest technical and regulatory hurdles to developing more complex drone operations? Are you hopeful or worried?

I am hopeful we will develop and allow more complex operations, but worried what the price will be for the operations that we already see today. The big challenge is to define a system which will allow different users at different capability levels to fly their drone safely. This is the real challenge for UTM: to define a system which will take into account different methods of connectivity and different airspace users.

I do not believe that one size fits all.

What should be the role of air navigation service providers (ANSPs) in developing UTM architectures?

It will depend on what region of the world you are in.  It is pretty clear that ANSPs in Europe have their eyes on UTM as a developing market; many European ANSPs operate on a private/public basis and this private sector focus allows them to look at this as a business opportunity. In the USA, of course, it’s still a State provided service within the FAA. I think the big question of what kind of role will ANSPs play is connected to the question of what kind of role will national aviation authorities (NAAs) play. For NAAs who are somewhat reluctant to touch this issue there will be more room for the ANSP to play a role.

How do you see the urban air mobility market taking off and what will DJI’s role be in this?

I want to see it before I believe it. There are certainly very interesting concepts out there. But if we had this conversation a year ago it was all about package delivery, which has faded somehow. When are they going to take off? Where is the market? London, for example is an interesting market but there you have Transport For London saying “Airspace is a finite resource and we want to use it for medical deliveries.”

Looking at it from a UTM perspective the big question is will this be an ATM or UTM market? It will depend on the airspace structure and what altitude these air vehicles will use.

Even though you can find some optimistic timelines out there I don’t think it’s right around the corner. Deployment will be gradual over the next decade and there will be a lot of money burnt on the way.

The issue here is not so much the integration of these vehicles into the airspace it’s more a certification issue – certifying passenger carrying vehicles without a pilot on board.

If you look at the overall drone market how different will it be five years from now – what kind of drones will be flying and how many there will be? We have seen such a disparity in forecast numbers.

There is no forecast out there not being criticised. No-one really knows. If you look at DJI product development over the last five years we’ve gone into more supportive functions to the pilot, more and more automation.

There will be a large number of products operated manually in five years’ time but this period will be really about industry uptake of the technology.

We’ve moved to stage where the skill set of how to integrate drones in a business is not a real threshold anymore – they are so smart. But there is a cultural challenge. We still have to convince a lot of industries to use drones

And then there is the issue of regulatory uncertainty. We still have a lot of work to do here and any regulation that makes it more expensive, more difficult for companies to adopt drones – if you need to pay a take-off fee to a UTM supplier, for example – that will be a real challenge.  The roofer will keep on using his or her ladder.

But regulators and ANSPs are going to have put something on that drone to identify it, to communicate with it. That will cost something. This must be both a threat and an opportunity for you.

I don’t believe in the one size fits all. We are seeing different UTM tests, some based on mobile phone networks, some advocating ADS-B and some using local identification methods. There is no sense of fusion about this; it all needs to come together. Our view differs from a lot of ANSPs – the real question is what it needed for? We have general aviation aircraft and other low level airspace users out there that are not part of anything – there is still no ADS-B plan in Europe for aircraft below 5 tonnes. Should they become part of the ATM system? If you ask the general aviation community they would say “never”.

This comes back to the issue of how UTM and ATM should be unified

The end game for UTM is automation of air traffic control. There are cultural and safety issues that will need to be resolved and that will take a long, long time – especially taking into consideration the regional differences. I think a lot of ANSPs would benefit from looking at this from a very broad perspective. Instead of saying: “We must control the drones in our airspace” they should perhaps look at a future of unified traffic management not limited to what’s in the air. In the future we will need integration of different transport systems and integration of unconnected objects and devices into the system, which is what makes local ID is and vehicle-to-vehicle detect-and-avoid technologies very important. That’s where I would put the focus.

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