World ATM Congress panel reviews UTM innovation and harmonisation through government/industry collaboration

Senior industry representatives discussed integration of unmanned and manned air traffic in a webinar hosted by World ATM Congress on 13 October 2020. Reported by Unmanned Airspace (, the panel is also covered in the following report published by Wing.

The proliferation of drone technology is spurring innovation that promises to bring substantial benefits to communities. But these benefits will only materialize if the current system of air traffic management can adapt to meet the needs of unmanned aviation. Airspace authorities are at the forefront of this substantial evolution and planning for the next generation of airspace users. And with nearly 100 countries undertaking some form of unmanned traffic management (UTM) work, key questions about drone integration are being tackled around the world.

To discuss these key questions, exchange perspectives, and share lessons learned, regulatory and ANSP representatives from US, France, England, and Australia joined together for a discussion hosted by the World ATM Congress. The panel was moderated by Wing’s Head of UTM Reinaldo Negron. According to a press report published by Wing, Panelists included:

Dale Sheridan, Assistant Director of Airspace and Emerging Technologies at Australia’s Department of Infrastructure Jay Merkle, Executive Director, UAS Integration Office at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Antoine Martin, Programme Director for new ATM Services at France’s Direction des Services de la Navigation Aérienne (DSNA) Mark Westwood, Chief Technology Officer at the U.K.’s Connected Places Catapult

During the panel, each panelist discussed efforts in their respective country toward drone integration.

Dale Sheridan, Assistant Director of Airspace and Emerging Technologies at Australia’s Department of Infrastructure

Australia has been a worldwide leader in drone integration and the development of UTM capabilities. In fact, the country has an innovative UTM model in place that allows multiple providers of drone traffic services to exist in the same ecosystem. Powered by open-source technologies, this ecosystem allows the real-time sharing of key airspace information with multiple, approved third-party providers. In turn, these providers can tailor their offerings to drone operators with specific use-cases and needs.

According to Dale Sheridan, the Assistant Director of Airspace and Emerging Technologies at Australia’s Department of Infrastructure, the importance of regulating drones is not strictly to enable the technology; it is to enable the economic and social benefits that this technology promises. There are lots of considerations to take into account when regulating drones, but the overarching regulatory goal needs to be to develop rules that promote safety, security, and consideration of the community and environment. For these reasons, Australia is pursuing a whole of government approach to regulating drone traffic. With a cohesive policy, the government can provide the sector with the certainty it needs to underpin future investment.

Sheridan also considers the proliferation of drone technology an opportunity for government to explore how it can innovate as it regulates. It is important for government to hit the sweet spot of regulation, providing the right rules and support at the right times to encourage the safe growth of the drone industry. To do this, Australia is focusing on regulation that is technology driven, outcomes oriented, and interoperable with international approaches. For Sheridan, the end result is a regulatory framework that will advance the use of drones in Australia.

Jay Merkle, Executive Director of UAS Integration Office at the United State’s Federal Aviation Administration

For Jay Merkle, the fundamental question is determining the correct role of the regulator. In the U.S., the desired approach is one where third-party providers will be empowered to provide airspace safety and information services to drone operators once approved by the regulator. The FAA has already declared no air traffic services for drones under 400ft and similar for higher altitude operations.

This shift in thinking from a one-size-fits-all approach to an open ecosystem one raises some interesting questions, like what are the appropriate performance requirements that should be used to qualify a third-party, UTM service provider? On this question specifically, the FAA is now engaging with industry to determine what industry consensus standards and best practices can be leveraged to develop appropriate performance criteria.

Also paramount for the FAA is creating the right regulation at the right time. Just this year, the FAA launched ConOps Version 2.0 to begin to provide more detail around the regulatory framework for drones. The focus of this next phase of regulatory implementation is on operations below 400 feet and those that are moving beyond visual line of sight. As this regulation moves forward, the FAA is keen to demonstrate a UTM model in the U.S. that can be harmonized with those around the world.

Antoine Martin, Programme Director for new ATM Services at France’s DSNA

Antoine Martin, the programme director for new ATM services at France’s DSNA, sees a drone industry that has already taken off. Every day, in nearly every country in the world, drones are flying and their use is growing at a staggering rate.

This proliferation of this new technology raises questions around the responsibilities of local, state, and federal entities, the proper governance structure, operational needs, and actual market opportunities. But above all, the key question to ask is how can regulators move forward in a way that helps incubate the drone industry so the benefits of the technology can be realized.

For Martin, airspace authorities need to lead through innovation. UTM is not ATM, and the current paradigm around manned traffic management is not suitable for the drone industry. Starting from that point opens up possibilities to think creatively, develop new partnerships, and leverage new technologies. This is exactly what France is working toward with the U-Space Together program, which is piloting an array of UTM capabilities at a dozen airports around France. At the end of the day, the relationship between industry and regulators is a symbiotic one. Industry partners need regulators’ expertise to access the airspace safely, and regulators need industry’s know-how to develop the right solutions for these new technologies.

Mark Westwood, Chief Technology Officer at the U.K.’s Connected Places Catapult

As the CTO for Connected Places Catapult (CPC), a non-profit organization helping the U.K. government outline a framework for drone traffic management, Mark Westwood has an interesting perspective in his role sitting between industry and government. As an innovation agency set up by the U.K. government, CPC has a mandate to pursue innovative solutions in pursuit of clear market opportunities. With estimates indicating that there will be 75,000 or more drones in operation in the U.K. in the next few years, the growing drone industry clearly fits CPC’s mandate.

Over the last few years, CPC has collaborated with government and industry to develop a drone traffic management framework that fits the needs of the regulator and also helps industry innovate within the market.

For Westwood, collaboration has been key. Working with industry has provided the expert advice needed to create a viable UTM framework and the compelling market pull needed to usher in such a big transformation.

Collaboration & Harmonization

During the panel discussion, a number of themes emerged across all of the panelists. Chief among these was collaborating with industry and harmonizing UTM solutions to ensure consistency and interoperability across the world.

Given the advanced technologies involved in drone operations, regulators see the need for close alignment with industry when creating standards and regulation. According to the FAA”s Jay Merkle, “this industry is changing so quickly it’s very easy for us, particularly on the government side, to get out of pace with the industry — where they are where they are trying to get. For me, being able to engage with industry in these collaborative discussions ensures we’re all getting there at the same time with the same set of objectives.”

For the U.K.’s Mark Westwood, the drive toward collaboration is all about making aviation work better for more people: “I think drones will drive a strong interest in a much more efficient aviation system, and I think within UTM we see all those different technologies that make a big contribution to that.”

Along with industry collaboration, the panelists also agreed on a key need to harmonize the development of UTM frameworks across governments, regions, and countries. According to France’s Antoine Martin, “If you want to support innovation you’ve got to have some global interoperability.” Only then will industry have the certainty and ability to make the key investments in technology, operations, and business development that will be required to fully realize the promise of drones.

The FAA’s Jay Merkle put it more bluntly: “we need to standardize not just in one country but across the globe. Then we need to figure out how we move at the pace that industry needs us to move so they can provide these vital services.”

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