European U-space demonstrator projects highlight key areas of technical immaturity

Results from Europe’s U-space demonstration projects, highlighted in three webinars hosted by SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU) taking place this week, have found technology is insufficiently mature to support some more advanced U-space services, while many initial U-space services perform well in controlled environments. The projects propose practical solutions and contribute to standards and regulations development through a series of demonstrations co-funded by the Commission.

Among findings, reliable communications infrastructure is essential to enable airspace users to avoid collisions and navigate safely. Petr Cásek, project coordinator for the EMPHASIS project, said simulations showed 4G and 5G cellular technology to be “technically capable” of supporting air-ground communications, however both currently lack sufficient interference mitigations. “The core infrastructure is not in place for this, leading to high outages.” He says this can be solved but currently there is no business case to justify the communications network providers upgrading the network for aeronautical use. “5G offers a big opportunity for the future, and the next step is to work jointly with the network providers on a business case.”

Automated operation is another essential capability to support complex services such as beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. Representing the Spanish research establishment CRIDA Pablo Sanchez-Escalonilla said VLOS and BVLOS simultaneous operations can be safely managed in rural and sub-urban areas “using operation plan management and position reporting” but as more drones share the airspace functions – such as tactical deconfliction – would overload a human operator.

CRIDA proposes a federated architecture with a single “orchestrator” in charge of air traffic management and specific safety services. In the medium term, he said, “taking into account the increase in the number of drone operations and diversity of business models we expect to operate, especially in urban environments, it will be necessary to evolve towards new technological solutions.” These include the development of microservice-based airspace design made up of different services which could adapt to the level of demand. This would allow functionalities to interact dynamically while meeting the principles of the U-space concept of operations. This flexibility also means the system can be “cost-adapted to reflect demand.”

The results of the demonstrations showed very few constraints to the implementation of initial U-space services included in early development stages termed U1 and U2, however, the need for a centralised role becomes more important as operations become more complex. It is likely that safety-critical services will be progressively delegated to U-space service providers (USSPs). Pablo Sanchez-Escalonilla urged the industry to hasten this development because “the drone market is waiting for technological solutions.”

In a separate presentation, Luigi Brucculeri representing Technosky for ENAV explained the DIODE Very Large Demonstration (VLD) in Italy was able to demonstrate acceptable levels of safety when U-space services interacted with air traffic management services for BVLOS flights. In this case, “drone capability is important in order for the system to work. Deconfliction relies on the capability of the drone to maintain the flight mission and stay in the mission area.” Emphasising the importance of planning and flight risk assessment, Brucculeri added this solution is ready to be deployed with a minimal level of regulatory development.

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