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“The drone services and UTM markets are huge and diverse and GUTMA should cover everything”

Koen De Vos is the new Secretary General of the Global UTM Association (GUTMA)

What is going to be the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the drone sector?

Crises act as accelerators, but nobody knows which direction the accelerator will take us. It’s a medical, economic, societal and political crisis and we’re at the crossroads with much uncertainty. Before corona everything was about digitisation and global warming – these were the big political discussions. Now that we are coming out of the crisis the push for further digitisation is accelerating. People have been working from home and shopping online. We’re also seeing a positive use of drones, by the police for example, who have been using them to reduce the risk of contamination. This could be a catalyst to further drive digitisation and further automation.

But then the Covid crisis also has its negative factors for the industry. There were companies with good ideas but not enough of a financial cushion and we could lose these ideas. We will need to concentrate on those activities which have a future – digital, automated, resilient and which fit a future business model.

Companies have been scrambling for cash, axing unnecessary business but will they be able to focus on stable activities? The environmental issues are again high on the political agenda, with quite a political swing in the US. The lockdowns have clearly shown how much human-induced pollution we were ready to accept before the crisis and I wonder whether we will be happy to go back to that level when the crisis is over. If drones can offer sustainable, green ways of delivering goods to people and offer other smart solutions then the crisis will have acted as an accelerator.

Where do you see GUTMA’s key focus for the future – political, lobbying, standards promotion, interoperability?

As GUTMA is not a traditional lobbying organisation, it should focus on all of these. GUTMA’s original mission statement was really visionary, it’s still relevant and it is exactly what I would like to implement. GUTMA’s role is to facilitate UTM/U-space systems globally to ensure safe, secure, green drone operations – that remains the vision and the mission. We can support regulators in getting the right regulatory frameworks in place and when decisions are made on research and development budgets GUTMA must be able to show which solutions work and which do not.  We are in a unique position as a global organisation; we can compare what works in the USA with what works in Europe, China, South Africa, Brazil – and understand why. The challenge is to turn GUTMA into an organisation that is able to reflect all those practices, assess them, analyse them and draw conclusions about best practices on a global scale.

There is a view that what works in the USA might not work in Europe and vice versa.

There will always be regional differences but people know how to observe speed limits and laws on the road with regional differences and my car – whether it’s produced in Europe, the USA or China – can cope with those different systems.

We want to help facilitate the operations of specialist businesses. If I specialise in bridge infrastructure inspections, I will want to extend the business not just throughout Europe but to Washington and Alabama, too. I know that there will be local differences, but I can adapt my drone operation to satisfy the local standards, whatever they are. That’s the challenge. And GUTMA is uniquely placed to capture and reflect all those global systems in respect of the local differences.

Looking at the regulatory environment GUTMA can see safety, security, privacy and environmental objectives at the same time; the USA will not take exactly the same path as in other parts of the world but at least it will go in the same direction and it could be supported by a single global standard and operated in the same way.

What will the drone and UTM sectors look like in two years’ time?

If the regulators do their work and the R&D budgets are made available and if industry can play its role by setting standards that satisfy all those requirements, I think in two years’ time you will see the main standards in place in the USA and Europe – you should be seeing the first fully operated and scalable drone operations taking place, supported by U-space and UTM regulations. The adoption of two regulatory milestones – the US E-identification and the EU U-space Regulation – are promising developments. And governments are willing to invest in infrastructure. That is quite promising. Our duty to make the funds well spent.

And this will include beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations?

It should, because that is the whole purpose of UTM and U-space services – to allow BVLOS operations. You can then add in further levels of automation to drive down the costs and attract new business so you have new industries and customers. “BVLOS” is a key word but “UTM/U-space” is even bigger, because that will help drive down costs and increase automation and scalability.

Even big businesses  – not to mention big tech companies like Google or Amazon – need UTM to allow for fully automated operations. You can already do many things with VLOS but you need people on the ground for this – which costs money and is not scalable. New innovative businesses must show cost differentials and provide quality services at lower costs, which in the drone world means more automation. That’s also the role of GUTMA – to build on the positive drone businesses developing around the world and integrate these with new standards and R&D.

So GUTMA will continue its role of providing input into new regulations

This stems from GUTMA’s original vision. To accelerate the creation of UTM we have to support regulators and GUTMA has many members with good practices; how can we turn those perspectives into good law? We have to maintain societal acceptance, making sure drone operations are safe, secure, green and respectful of privacy rights while, at the same time, making sure regulations support automation and provide scalable solutions which generate more business.

Regulators face two contradictory forces – they have to develop rules which ensure that drones can be monitored and prevented from creating security risks while finding ways to promote and advance the industry. The two forces are not always compatible.

How can we make sure that drones are only used for good purposes? We must make sure that we have the rules and reassurances in place so that you can immediately spot trouble in the sky. And that is why we must have strong, enforceable rules governing registration, identification and trust in the system. People must have trust. When I see a lorry I don’t worry that driver might not know how to drive a lorry. I have trust in the system.

Do you think that counter UAS systems, to identify and mitigate the threat of rogue drones, should be integrated within UTM systems – as in Germany, where DFS has been tasked by the government to develop counter-UAS capabilities around major airports – or is this a service which should be left to independent security agencies?

UTM/U-space is an enabler for commercial activities and there should be a link between the security system and the drone traffic management system. UTM/U-space operators should inform the relevant security agency if there are going to be drones flying close to an airport and state the nature of the mission. But they should also be able to tell security personnel if there is an unidentified drone in the vicinity. We should organise that interaction between UTM/U-space and specified security systems. The rules must be enforceable and based around the concept of making the lives of security staff easier. That system is not a substitute for security, it is a system to protect the airport.

How do you see GUTMA’s membership developing?

GUTMA is a young organisation, founded in 2015, to support a new activity. Now this activity is expanding, with drones ranging from a few grams to remotely piloted air systems the size of airliners to future space vehicles. The drone services and UTM markets are huge and diverse and GUTMA should cover everything.

So I hope that membership will grow and new types of members will depend on how the business develops. If you look at traditional ATM service providers they grant access to airspace based on a monopoly –  based on a technology where you can only have one single eye in the sky to oversee all operations on the radar screen. The controller must be able to see all airspace movements.

UTM/U-space will be different. We have other technologies which allow for many players and UTM/U-space service providers could be stand-alone businesses or become part of a bigger value chain. For example, some players may integrate UTM into its value chain because it needs to have access to airspace; it not only produces its own drones, it maintains and operates them and provides UTM services. That is one model. Will this model become the overall global model? I don’t know.

These business developments will influence who should become a GUTMA member. If GUTMA wants to become an authoritative organisation it needs to be representative of the whole range of activities and be representative of the industry geographically. We must also represent all different viewpoints. This includes traditional aviation, so if Airbus becomes a service provider, transporting goods and people by drone, the association must represent its views, too.  UTM/U-space activities will probably cross over into other activities and we will want to bring UTM/U-space into the overall aviation value chain. And we also see a strong local dimension through urban air mobility.

Do you see UTM eventually replacing ATM?

Nobody knows the answer to that. If UTM is able to provide safe and secure air traffic management services for thousands of drones flying over a city while managing satellite and rocket traffic, then the question is why should thousands of commercial passenger flights still have to remain in the hands of monopolistic ATM providers?  The answer to the question depends on the safety level UTM/U-space can offer and how fast. And that will determine the speed with which U-space could take over from the current ATM.  But I believe that UTM is the future of ATM and the two worlds will eventually meet –the question is “how soon”?

How do you see the relationship between UTM/U-space service providers and powerful, rich mobile phone companies developing?

GUTMA has been triggered by a new activity and that activity must show its level of performance in terms of safety, security and so on. This will dictate how the business develops. The relationship between GUTMA and GSMA is important because GSMA could offer the future infrastructure and we have to build a win-win situation to make that work.

But I also think that GUTMA should have a strategic relationship with associations like CANSO – the representative of ATM service providers – and other industry association representing railway businesses, because they are interested in using drones to monitor their tracks and for other infrastructure inspection tasks.

What is the alternative to exploiting mobile network operator technologies?  The alternative is the current ATM system which has built its own bespoke, very safety-critical but very costly system. I think it’s attractive to use existing infrastructure and we are ready to do this as long as it reaches the levels of performance which we need in aviation. And there we have to look at what we can do with existing 3G and 4G networks before we understand what 5G could offer.  What we have learnt from the Commission’s network of U-space demonstrators is that we don’t have to wait for 5G to deliver automated and scalable drone operations.  If we had 5G we could do much more, of course, and maybe we will become an important 5G customer but we don’t need it to start with.

We have learnt in those demonstrations what our requirements are and how we might work with GSMA to develop drone-specific services – for example, to ensure we can avoid multiple instances of communication drops – to deliver a win-win situation.

Mobile network operators (MNOs) see the drone industry as a customer with specific requirements. They will look at how drones navigate and translate that into a purchase decision, such as what will be the cost implications if the drone operator will automatically require the most powerful cellular signal performance. I think it’s a delicate relationship, but we can turn it into a win-win relationship but on the basis that aviation has specific, very high-quality service standards.

But UTM/U-space service suppliers will be reluctant to work with MNOs until they can be assured on the level of service. The capacity of a cellular system is also dynamically adjusted over time in a specific region of a city, so UTM/U-space operators must have that information.

I think there is a need to work closely together on this.

Will European GUTMA members be happy to accept US standards for operating U-space services or will they need their own?

There are different approaches to this. What is a US standard and what is a European standard? A US standard is a standard developed by a US body, exclusively for and by US companies, exclusively for a US regulatory context. In practice, global companies want to expand to the global market so they are interested in global standards. And US businesses know that they have to work with European companies and vice versa. They know that they will have to develop standards which will work not only in a US regulatory environment but also in a European or Chinese market.

So if you want to have global operations you must make sure that the processes you are using are sufficiently open. If you look at European standard-setting, who was the motor behind this work? It was German industry, which tried to translate German standards into European ones. But some sectors had a strong French industry presence and they took the French standards and tried to turn those into European ones. Eventually, they said: ”OK. Let’s try and be more open and work for the European market, not automatically based on national standards, but using a more transparent and open processes.” That’s exactly what is happening now.

There is so much work being done on standards and no one region is able to provide all the standards for UTM/U-space. So industry must be selective, in an open and transparent way. Even organising meetings, the location can create bias. The challenge, as always, is to take the big ideas and put them into practice at a detailed level.

Koen De Vos studied law (1985) and economics (1987) at the University of Leuven, Belgium. He worked six years at the University of Antwerp (1988-89) and at the higher institute for labour studies of the University of Leuven (1990-93). He joined the services of the European Commission in 1993 to work on social and employment issues in the Coal and Steel industries and on Social Dialogue. He moved to the transport directorate-general in 2002 to join the single European sky team. Since September 2009 he assumed responsibilities in the field of aviation safety and environment. In 2015 he became senior drone expert for the Commission. In April 2021 he was appointed Secretary General of GUTMA.
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