The central error in decentralised UTM

Andrew Charlton is Managing Director of Aviation Advocacy (

The European Commission is currently attempting to devise regulations for the operation of U-Space – the proposed single European traffic management system for UAVs – a task akin to changing the tyres of a moving car. There are a number of interested parties, including the ANSPs, the attitude of which varies from working to facilitate the introduction of UTM to assuming a total monopoly over its operation in their airspace. There are also UTM providers. Given the attitude of the ANSPs they are now in a desperate race to be the sole provider of UTM technology for each of the ANSPs.

In other words, unless we are careful, UTM is going to go the way of ATM, with monopoly providers for each territory. That has worked out so well in the analogue world it makes perfect sense to condemn what could be a competitive, digital, service to the same fate. There is also no assurance that common standards will apply. Not only would such an outcome take the worst of the current arrangements into the future, it will be slow. Potential drone operators and drone service providers need regulatory certainty before they can commit, but without that commitment, the regulators, and the Commission in particular, has no incentive, or need, to do anything. Central to the discussion is the role the State (or ANSP) plays, how much of the underlying platform should be centralised and how much opened to competitive suppliers, versus ways to bring U-Space into existence as quickly as possible to open the investment flows.

At the core of U-Space are three safety critical services – flight approval, and both strategic and tactical deconfliction. ANSPs know how to deliver these, EASA already knows how to regulate these, the Commission knows how to legislate for these and it is easy to develop appropriate standards. If these can be offered centrally, or by each ANSP in accordance with a single blueprint, it will accelerate the introduction of the U-Space. It also, ironically, removes the risk of fragmentation.

Getting the right balance between monopoly and speed is fundamental for U-Space. There are three options: a centralised model, a decentralised model and fragmentation. A centralised model means one authoritative view of what is happening in the airspace, and a means to control who is authorised to access it. The decentralised model being put forward is NASA’s UTM. That opens market to US companies and their tame standard setting bodies with several years head start. EASA concedes that it has no idea how to regulate this kind of system and it would need demonstrators to prove its viability and for EASA to learn how to regulate. That will take at least two years. The delay in implementing a single model means that fragmentation will occur as Europe’s NAA’s bow to pressure and develop local rules.

The solution is to contract the ANSPs to provide a common, standard, service for the three core requirements, for a limited period only. Built on that can be a competitive market for services such as fleet planning and management. That give EASA time to do what it has to do to test and demonstrate options and allow other services to develop. If a centralised service is not optimal, it can be changed once EASA is satisfied it can regulate a decentralised architecture. But at least we have a U-space in place to allow investments to start to flow, and a European design. This proposal, at risk of being ignored in the Commission and at EASA, delivers U-Space at least two years earlier, and leaves Europe in control of its UTM. It might even create an export market.

Reprinted with kind permission from the Aviation Intelligence Reporter


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