“Testing the boundaries between public and commercial UTM service provision”

An interview with Hendrik-Jan Van Der Gucht, Manager Innovation, Belgocontrol

What are the major challenges you face in developing a UTM system?

At a regulatory level, there is the new European Union framework that is currently being prepared by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). We are still struggling to understand some of the elements of that framework.

As part of the air navigation service provider (ANSP) community, we don’t see yet how Europe will guarantee a level playing field between ANSPs and new, potentially commercially oriented UTM service providers. The current texts of EASA do not include anything on how Member States should, for instance, designate UTM service providers, how these service providers should be certified and how they should demonstrate a minimum level of safety and quality of service. Moreover, the draft regulations (in particular, the implementing regulation on the rules and procedures for the operation of unmanned aircraft) seem to include requirements for both operators of drones and providers of UTM services, with one competent authority overseeing both. In the world of manned aviation, there is a distinct regulatory framework applying to air operators on the one hand, and providers of air navigation services on the other hand. The service provision Regulation, one of the four founding regulations of the Single European Sky, contains requirements for the safe and efficient provision of air navigation services and the establishment of an independent body overseeing service provision (i.e. the National Supervisory Authority (NSA)).

With the emergence of the drone industry comes a new type of airspace users with little or no aviation background, having new expectations amongst others with regard to airspace use and management. The challenge for us will be to make sure that those new airspace users will get access to airspace in the safest and most efficient way.

As an ANSP, we are still struggling to determine the best possible position in terms of value proposition and organisational structure aiming at providing the leanest, most efficient and safest services to these new airspace users. Most ANSPs are considering becoming UTM service providers. The question is what services we will be looking at? Have we seen a complete list of UTM services yet?  Is the European Union expecting that Member States provide some of these services as a public service? Where do you draw the line and who will be funding what?

As we have been building up expertise over many decades in terms of managing traffic and airspace, we believe we are best placed to provide at least some of these new services. But there are many institutional questions related to this, and from reading the European Commission and EASA texts I would say that there are even more questions to be answered.

So the short-term challenge for us will be to find out our position, understand these new concepts and technologies and how Member States will designate and certify UTM service providers.

From a technological perspective, it’s true that we can’t just compare ATM with UTM. Part of our ongoing work aims at trying to understand how fleets of thousands, tens of thousands of vehicles can be managed in real time in an almost fully automated way. We are confronted with big tech companies like Amazon and Alibaba and we have to understand their operating concepts and how we could collaborate with them. And they will have to learn from us, too. We will have to educate them on airspace and safety aspects and so on.

There is also the challenge of developing new procedures, finding the role of air traffic controllers within a system which is going to be mostly automated. At a technological level, UTM systems (technologies) will need to interact in some way or another with the existing ATM systems, many of which use legacy technologies, some of which are subject of modernisation within the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) programme. We are working on system wide information management (SWIM), on open systems, with new standard procedures, but we are not there yet.

If we break it down a little – do you have a full understanding as to what kind of drone registration system you should have in place and by when?

This is a subject we are discussing with the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and for which we hope to see some more guidance from Europe. We are not willing to spend large amounts of money on a new system where we can’t see what the minimum requirements would look like.

The Droneguide platform (see www.drongeuide.be) that we are currently implementing is a common project with the Belgian CAA that, from its initial perspective, should cover as a minimum the so-called U-space foundation services, which includes electronic registration. On the technicalities, we are working with our industrial partner Unifly to make sure that the platform has an open and modular architecture, meaning that it should be easy to grow the platform and interface it with external systems based on a set of standard protocols. Droneguide will bring many benefits to the professional operators and pilots, amongst others through the digitization and (partial) automation of the many existing administrative pre-flight processes related to the registration of drone and operator, operational authorization and filing of a flight notification. As soon as the new European regulations will come into force, the platform will be aligned with any new rules.

Have you done any research into tracking and identification?

Yes, we have done some research. But from a terminology perspective there’s still a lot of confusion as we have seen many terms and definitions describing quite similar concepts. That’s why we hope to see a standardised, harmonised set of definitions that are also aligned with the definitions we have been using for many decades in ATM. An example: a surveillance system in ATM is defined as a system providing aircraft position and other related information such as identification. In a UTM context, we have seen several services that all seem to cover one or more surveillance related aspects: electronic identification service, tracking service, conformance monitoring service and traffic information service. All these new services and their related definitions should be standardised or harmonised to a maximum extent possible.

That said, we recently launched an ambitious project with more than 15 national and international partners. The project, titled SAFIR (which stands for “Safe And Flexible implementation of Initial U-space services in Real airspace environment”), has also been submitted as candidate project under the umbrella of the SESAR 2018 U-space call. As part of that project, we will be testing several surveillance technologies, both non-cooperative and cooperative in nature.

We are working with Aveillant on its passive surveillance drone tracking system and with some telecom companies (amongst which Proximus, a Belgian telco) on cooperative surveillance based on cellular communication technologies using 4G and/or 5G networks.

But there are other technologies we would also like to test in the course of next year, for example, technologies favoured by some major drone manufacturers like DJI which are based on the command and control connection between the ground station and the drone itself, using Wi-Fi frequencies. We are also in contact with some smaller telecom companies such as Citimesh which has a demo prototype installation in the city of Kortrijk that operates using LTE in a specific frequency band. Last but not least, we will also be testing ADS-B based tracking.

I think in the end we will have to use a combination of different technologies, all of them complying with minimum performance requirements – a performance-based approach – and open standards so the surveillance objectives will be met by combining different technologies.


This is an incredibly complex process and it must be costing you a lot of money

I think ANSPs will have to invest a lot of money and resources in order to cope with the afore-mentioned challenges, but I also believe that they represent opportunities for developing new business models and revenue streams as well.

One of the SAFIR project objectives will be to show the interoperability between ATM and UTM systems (in the broad sense of the word: the combination of people, procedures and equipment), including tracking technologies. In my opinion, such demonstration projects are crucial to progress advances in UTM, and U-space in particular.

One of the aspects we are struggling with is a lack of standards. Several European and international initiatives have been taken to develop operational concepts for UTM, but we still haven’t seen a harmonised set of definitions as there is no agreed conceptual framework. There are a lot of candidate technologies to support those operational concepts being developed, but we are not yet at the point of being able to start writing technical specifications or standards. Pilot projects will give us the opportunity to demonstrate and propose widely supported operational and technological recommendations.

How far do you understand where the boundaries of responsibilities lie within UTM between the local authorities, security agencies, police? How do you formulate an organisational structure so that everybody’s interests are involved?

We are starting to work on a UTM concept with some bigger cities in Belgium along with law enforcement, federal police and local police authorities. Part of the exercise is to develop a very generic architecture and role distribution system that could be applied.

There will be new rules and responsibilities for new actors who have never had responsibilities before in terms of airspace and air traffic management. But we understand that there could be events such as a (road) traffic accident or a major planned or unplanned event in a city where local authorities would need to decide upon restrictions (‘geo-fencing’) for the operation of drones in the immediate vicinities. For this to work, the UTM system should be able to re-configure airspace in a very rapid way. And this is simply not possible with the current ATM systems.

We will need to re-think not only the system – or system of systems in the UTM – but also the roles and responsibilities for different types of stakeholders. Within the white paper we are currently developing, we will make a distinction between on the one side authorities and organisations providing a public type of UTM services and on the other side companies offering commercial services.

For the public services provider we will make a lot of the things move between the national authority UTM service provider and local authority UTM service providers. A local authority UTM service provider could be a seaport or a city or the local police with airspace management roles and responsibilities within a very well-defined geographical airspace volume.

We are also trying to map each and every one of the currently defined UTM (or U-space) services into a role and responsibility matrix, amongst others based on the discussions we have had with ports and cities so far. Needless to say that all of that happens in close collaboration with the CAA.

The SAFIR project will demonstrate several urban-based U-space operations, covering different societal and industry needs and applications (such as healthcare, security, infrastructure inspection, logistics).  In addition, we will be working closely together with several Belgian cities to investigate the potential of Urban Air Mobility under the EIP-SCC initiative. It’s obvious that safely integrating drones in the urban airspace has to be an integral part of making smart cities.

All of these projects will allow us to refine the boundaries of responsibilities with regard to UTM.

I know it’s very early days yet, but have you identified roughly how many UTM service providers might be set up, at a local level, at a national level, at a regional level, in Belgium, eventually?

What I know is that several Belgian cities are starting to reflect on UTM and their potential future roles and responsibilities. Similarly, air, sea and drone port operators and authorities might also be thinking about taking up a role as UTM service provider. There is currently one so-called drone port in Belgium, located at the former military airport of Brustem, Sint-Truiden. Besides acting as an incubator for start-up companies, Droneport Sint-Truiden provides test facilities to drone operators, allowing them to conduct test flights in dedicated (segregated) airspace. There are at least two more candidate drone port projects. So we see quite some interest from public entities to take up a role as UTM service provider or at least to act as an authority in that part of the airspace that concerns them directly.

What we don’t know yet is the size of the other side of the spectrum, composed of companies that are (mainly) pursuing commercial interests. We see incumbents originating from diverse industries (e.g. telecom) investing in research and development of prototype technologies (e.g. drone tracking) and developing their business case to assess the drone market and their business potential. Others (e.g. market leaders in retail and logistics) are envisaging comprehensive solutions, allowing them to manage their fleet of drones and operations in a highly autonomous way.

How closely are you working with the regulator now? The UTM system itself must be incredibly complex to regulate and certify as there is no historical, empirical data on which to base standards for tracking and communications for example.

Safety is and will remain our primary objective. Every initiative we take in the domain of UTM is closely coordinated with the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority and National Supervisory Authority (NSA) for air navigation services, and is subject to a thorough safety assessment. In this regard, we will act as coordinator for the individual risk assessments that will need to be prepared as part of the U-space demonstration project we plan to execute next year.

Many stakeholders in the drone industry would like to extend their operations beyond visual line of sight (so-called BVLOS operations).  Most of them say that, from a purely technological perspective, they are ready to do so. They have the platform and might have been testing operations already in a segregated environment. Belgocontrol is willing to act as facilitator, enabling commercial drone operators to bring their operations to the next level.

In the frame of the SAFIR project, we should be able to demonstrate the safe and efficient execution of BVLOS flights, under pre-defined conditions and agreements with all relevant stakeholders. Successfully demonstrating the operational and technological readiness of such flights will be a first important step towards a new Belgian legislative framework allowing BVLOS flights.

To maximize our chances of success, the project will follow a stepwise approach, starting with a comprehensive demonstration plan, including a safety management plan and individual risk assessments, that will have to be approved by the NSA at the very start of the project. Prior to executing the flights in a real airspace environment, a series of tests and validations of both the ground based and airborne equipment and procedures will take place at the test facilities of Droneport in Sint-Truiden. By building the entire demonstration from scratch and following an incremental approach, hereby constantly involving the CAA and other authorities, we hope to build the necessary level of confidence and to demonstrate that one or more applications could be ready to be deployed in the coming years.

It’s going to be a very challenging and complex project. And as an ANSP, I think we are best placed to coordinate the necessary safety assessments.

Do you see your drone traffic management being integrated within the ATM system or will it be managed as a separate entity?

Systems for drone traffic management (DTM) will need to be interoperable and exchange data and information with ATM systems. Furthermore, they will need to provide an equivalent level of safety. As in ATM, a collaborative approach between stakeholders will be essential to ensure efficient and effective services. DTM systems will also share several identical data and information sources, such as related to airspace structures.

But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that we will be able to manage drone flights with current ATM systems. Existing procedures and processes within the ATM environment were never designed for very large numbers of (automated or autonomous) flying craft. The expected growth of drone traffic and associated flight requests make it impossible to deal with these new airspace users in a manual way, both in the pre-tactical (flight preparation and approval) and tactical (flight execution) phase of operations. DTM systems being conceived today will be highly automated systems, with different architectures and role divisions when compared to ATM.

What are the milestones for the development of Belgocontrol UTM/U-space programme?

Together with the Belgian CAA, Belgocontrol is deploying a series of drone applications, branded as Droneguide.  A public version of our web application – available at www.droneguide.be – was launched in March of this year and was very well received by the general public and aviation stakeholders. The website shows on an intuitive 2D map where activities with drones are allowed in the Belgian airspace.

During the last week of June we launched our mobile app, adding some more functionalities such as the possibility to define a specific flight profile and validate it against the applicable rules and regulations. This mobile app is available to both the recreational user and the professional drone pilot providing not just flight validation but also basic fleet management functionalities and automated logbooks.

By the end of this year, we will be launching an even more enhanced Droneguide version, allowing amongst others, the licensed commercial operators to directly interface with the relevant authorities for on-line drone registration, flight approvals and real-time flight notifications.

Have you developed a business plan for supporting UTM operations, including proposed charges and investment?

This is something we are currently working on. As a matter of fact, we recently attracted a business development expert with a background in the drone industry to assist us in this exercise.


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