‘This community is coming together to define a viable way forward’ Unmanned Airspace interviewed OneSky co-founders Bob Hammett and Chris Kucera about how they are implementing Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) and addressing today’s industry challenges.
Many Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) applications and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) demonstrations were showcased during 2020, including the second phase of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) UTM Pilot Program (UPP2). What are the next steps?
Bob Hammett: “These are exceptional learning opportunities that leverage the emerging standards to advance everyone’s understanding of how these systems need to behave, operate and interact with air traffic management and the ground control systems. It is exciting to see the community continue to use collective thinking and realize it cannot just rely on the regulators alone to figure this out.
“OneSky is involved with NUAIR UPP2 demonstrations at the New York UAS Test Site, Swiss U-Space Implementation (SUSI) with the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA), Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, Australia among other programmes. These applications are relying on us to share the lessons learned around the globe, so we don’t repeat the same disparate lessons two or three times over.”
What lessons have been learned?
Chris Kucera: “We learned that the Discovery and Synchronization Services (DSS) works well as part of the UTM infrastructure. This is new technology since the previous NASA TCL4 trials, and allows multiple USS to communicate flight plans for strategic deconfliction. The trial allowed us to discover some gaps in the initial design of the DSS. For example, we implemented historical queries for UPP2 as an add on to the existing ASTM standard. This allows for Remote ID use cases where law enforcement may want to investigate historical flights in the UTM network. In addition, we tested out constraints in the DSS. We believe the DSS can be used for more constraint handling in the UTM network and have been able to demonstrate this with our work with Air Services Australia. We also explored some new concepts for how strategic deconfliction could be managed in the process of registering 4D Volumes in a DSS, such as the use of hybrid VLOS/BVLOS plans that would allow for more flexibility in operations and avoid unpredictable compliance issues on takeoff.”
Is Global Positioning System (GPS) an imprecise means of navigation?
Bob Hammett: “If you consider where those signals are coming from and the noisy environment they’re received in, GPS is a tremendous tool. But it has a lot of fragility to it and we need to start thinking about secondary or tertiary backups to make sure we have a solution when those signals are not of the required precision or accuracy. OneSky is partnered with organisations involved in alternative PNT technologies like eLORAN, which provides completely different, lower spectrum, signals that are of much greater reliability. With both new and legacy technology, navigational accuracy issues can be resolved and are certainly not deal-breakers.
“There was a recent operation that relied on three different navigation systems, and if that is what it takes, then that needs to be incorporated in the safety plan and into the operation to provide the level of assurance we are looking for. Though it’s up to industry to prove out these different capabilities – as it might not be viable to have three different systems on board a UAS if you’re trying to achieve high efficiency operations.”
What is your key focus at the moment?
Bob Hammett: “Explaining UTM can be confusing because it can be interpreted so broadly. In addition to the core UTM Service Suppliers (USS), it can include the broader infrastructure and even the ground control system. We’re trying to educate the market on what our capabilities are, and how these capabilities can fit in with the Civil Aviation Authorities and Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) to enable them to start taking those first steps towards broader drone usage within their countries.
“UTM sits between the ANSPs and the individual operators. The UTM acts as a broker to streamline the interactions between the authoritative systems and the ground control application. There is a large spectrum of ideas that fall somewhere between these two stakeholders. We think about challenges like how much responsibility the ANSP will take, and how much they want the USS to take. Further, what functions do you plan to hold onto and what functions can the USS provide? There’s certainly a give and take because the services can reside almost anywhere on that technology stack, but someone has to take responsibility. This is why market education continues to be so important to the evolution and adoption of UTM.
“Another key focus for us is being the digital infrastructure provider for these new airspace entrants. OneSky started out as a new market initiative within Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI) who was addressing many of the challenges that we find today with UTM, but for Defense and Intelligence customers. Then we solved the same problems for commercial space operators who needed collaboration of operational intent, data sharing, privacy concerns in the world’s first space traffic management system (STM), called COMSPOC. It was developed 10 years ago and is still in operation today. From our AGI heritage, we bring with us access to 7 million lines of proven analytical software code and the capability for time-dynamic analysis of communications, navigation assurance, radar and surveillance coverage. This provides us with a very high degree of certainty so we can predict what the performance of these systems will be. That means your operation has to conform to be sure you are operating with the appropriate coverage and safety required.
“UTM capability is going to be an aggregate of many different services to ensure safe and efficient operation in collaboration with all the other operators in the airspace. It’s the critical piece. Government isn’t going to provide it, but we have to find a way to get rewarded for the development and operation of our system. We’re trying to figure this out: is it going to follow the ANSP model of charging by the kilometre, like a kind of toll road, or are there other better subscription models? Are certain countries going to favour a single provider versus a federated system?
“Lastly, we believe Discovery and Synchronization Services (DSS) will continue to expand. We have a minimum capability right now and the airspace regulators, law enforcement and authorities will need access to information that DSS can help provide to the UTM.”
Will you need mobile phone operators to help?
Bob Hammett: “Absolutely. We are working with those folks already and there’s great promise with 5G and other communications technologies on the horizon to provide that level of command and control needed. Part of our efforts in Singapore included working with the local telecoms provider to understand the capabilities of the local network and understand issues we may have in flight.
How do you develop a system which is modular and scalable?
Chris Kucera: First, you have to rely on other industry standards to ensure a robust system architecture. Then the systems need to be modeled and simulated to understand how to predict their performance in a UTM. We need to simulate multiple, different USS entities on a large scale to test the UTM performance as well. Our simulation software is already tied to our USS so we can build in many different scenarios in our desktop software, rather like a simulated ground control system. Then we can play those into the USS and see the interaction. What we need to do – more on an ecosystem level – is a distributed simulation in the same way the military does Distributed Interactive Simulation (DIS).
“We believe operations in places where you have existing infrastructure and sensors like radar and communications, is more scalable than rural locations. While there may be less obstacles, those that are there are much more difficult to see without any CNS infrastructure. Exploiting more populated areas is definitely the right way to go. Those are also the places with the largest business models for drones like the package delivery and where we have the most geospatial information. We could fly inside areas where ADS-B is mandated to ensure 100% cooperation from manned aircraft and fall back on radar to fill the gaps in surveillance, and build the DAA system in a ground-based UTM to suit the BVLOS customer. The biggest immediate problem is getting the aircraft certified, but I think the USS needs to focus on DAA
How long before we can support BVLOS above people with a mature UTM system?
Chris Kucera: “I think it has to start with certified vehicles. If we can get a certified vehicle in the next year or two then I think within two to three years we could expect routine BVLOS. If a drone gets certified tomorrow, then it’s up to integration to solve the DAA problem. Past that, it’s really just refining the procedure and some integration with ATC.
“What really needs to change is the sharing of information. Within the FAA for example, the radar data is difficult to get access to and needed for our UTM systems as much as the FAA ATM systems. We have good infrastructure in the US, but using it for UAS purposes is difficult. I also think worldwide mandates on using technology like ADS-B are weak and could be strengthened. If ADS-B was more widely mandated around the world, we would have better surveillance without additional infrastructure requirements.
“If we can make sure USS companies have access to data needed to do detect and avoid, layer in that safety from on-board airborne DAA equipment, and I think we’ll be pretty close.”