“U-space deployment builds on successful partnership between research and industry”

In 2017 the SESAR Joint Undertaking drafted the U-space blueprint, a vision of how to make U-space operationally possible. The blueprint proposes the implementation of four sets of services to support the EU aviation strategy and regulatory framework on drones. Since then, SESAR and industry have developed a programme of increasingly complex U-space trial and demonstration programmes, the results of which have fed directly into regulatory and operational real-life actions. Florian Guillermet, Executive Director, SESAR JU – who will be leaving the agency at the end of June –  and Leon van de Pas, CEO, Unifly, assess the progress of U-space implementation in Europe.

Many industry experts suggest that by late 2023 we should be able to have UTM systems in place capable of managing multiple drone operators flying several drones each on BVLOS missions in unsegregated airspace, exchanging safety data (and tactical deconfliction) via a common flight information management system. Is this a realistic timescale?  

Florian Guillermet: ”It is possible that UTM systems will be in place in that timescale, and their capabilities may match those suggested. Having said that, the initial focus of the U-space regulation is on segregating BVLOS operations, so it is hard to make predictions beyond that. What we can say is that we are working with our research stakeholders, including the regulatory bodies and standardisation organisations, to prepare for the eventuality of non-segregated operations to ensure that the underlying communications, conflict and resolution technologies are sufficiently mature. With the launch of a new portfolio of U-space demonstrations, we will trial and test these technologies in complex operational scenarios in segregated airspace to identify potentially unidentified risks in a real-life environment.”

Leon van de Pas: “By late 2023 we expect that several UTM systems will be already deployed worldwide, the majority of which will be in Europe. Thanks to the U-space regulation that be applicable in Europe by then we may see Operations Beyond Visual Line of Sight(B-VLOS) happen in a segregated way by that time, in line with the U-space regulation. Outside Europe, limited B-VLOS operations in unsegregated airspace might already happen. Countries with a centralised implementation approach might go faster and will probably be the first in this respect. The practical feasibility goes hand in hand with the technology implemented, type of airspace and associated flight rules which are put in place. Safe execution of flights both for unmanned and manned aviation should of course always remain the top priority.”

Which of these elements are most advanced and which are lagging behind – regulations, standards, technical maturity? 

Florian Guillermet: “Research and innovation, standardisation and regulation are very inter-dependent, and behave very much like an ecosystem. Our recently published U-space research findings show that the foundation (U1) and initial (U2) services are ready for use in environments with low levels of complexity (rural areas, segregated airspace) and a low density of traffic. At the same time, our analysis underlines the need to further develop and validate U-space to cater for high complexity/high density operating environments (urban operations, mixed traffic). This will require more research and innovation, in particular in relation to conflict management, emergency management and monitoring services – It is these services that will make U-space scalable and robust to support dense and complex operations in U2 and will ensure a transition to U3 and U4. We have started work in these areas with our new demonstrations, which are coordinated closely with EASA and the standardisation bodies to ensure that our research activities can support effectively the definition of required standards, protocols and regulations going forward.”

Leon van de Pas: “There is still a need to further develop regulations, standards and technical solutions. U-space is only the beginning and will need further development and refinement. Regulatory initiatives should at this stage be performance based and allow for creating a situation and ecosystem where UTM implementations and corresponding drone technology can mature and still evolve. That is why Unifly has always promoted a step-wise approach of the implementation of UTM, aimed at fostering and enabling the drone market and operations. This approach allows for adaptions, building on experience and best practices which in turn allows to increase complexity along with the maturity of the technology and market. Regulation, implementation, and technical maturity should ideally go hand in hand though we must be cautious to rush into a ‘one size fits all solution’.  Enough flexibility should be built in to allow implementations to serve local specificities such as airspaces, ground risk, governance etc.  Likewise, standards can evolve at the same pace and support a more harmonised approach. A future proof regulatory framework is key for the UTM and drone industry to provide a basis for further investments and development.”

Which of these enabling technologies requires the more research effort to bring it an operational capability: detect-and-avoid, cooperative/non-cooperative surveillance?

Florian Guillermet: “These enabling technologies are equally critical for safe and secure drone operations, and both require further investigation. In the case of ground-based surveillance, a vital capability of any service that needs the position of a drone, we have investigated mainly cooperative surveillance systems, with only an initial look at non-cooperative scenarios in order to address security issues (near airports, for example). The surveillance performance requirements may vary depending on the service – for instance a simple tracking service may not need the same level of surveillance performance as that used for separation provision. It is the latter where more research is necessary to determine the surveillance capabilities needed to support any form of separation provision. In the case of detect and avoid (DAA), technically speaking, a ground-based tracking and separation service rules out the need for this capability. However, it really depends on the flight rules in operation because even if a ground-based separation service is provided, the ‘pilot’ remains responsible for the safety of the vehicle, and that includes collision avoidance. It also depends on the airspace; in segregated airspace, we may be able to manage without DAA. But it’s a different story for non-segregated airspace, where drones and manned aircraft interact – DAA here is likely to become a requirement.  The good news is that standards and technology prototypes (including non-cooperative ones) are under development, and research is advancing on this important capability.”

“In the case of detect and avoid (DAA), technically speaking, a ground-based tracking and separation service rules out the need for this capability”

Leon van de Pas: “What we see in the field, especially in areas with critical infrastructure such as ports, is that you need to have an entire emerging ecosystem in place. Both cooperative and non-cooperative drone traffic is picked up using multiple technologies such as trackers, e-Identification, radar and optical tracks, and fed into the system. This enables the UTM system to differentiate friend from foe and provide this crucial information to the operator as actionable insights. Though, the usage of both technologies, DDA and surveillance, as indicated by Florian depends a lot on the local situation and needs. Further research in this domain is certainly still needed. Since 2016 Unifly has actively contributed to about 20 research projects, from the theoretical frameworks to the hands-on experience in large-scale demonstrators. The findings from these projects are directly relevant to the industry and crucial in keeping Europe ahead of the curve when it comes to pushing forward the drone service market.”

Can you give me update of the key deliverables of the SESAR UTM research programme?

 ian Guillermet: “A central outcome of our now completed research activities has been the U-space Concept of Operations (CONOPS), which, for the first time in Europe, provides an overall picture of what U-space may look like together with a description of airspace types and U-space services to enable safe and efficient very low-level (VLL) drone operations. In parallel, the results from our projects show that we have made progress on the technical and operational building blocks of U-space, with project partners already reporting plans to start work now in their respective countries to deploy some elements of U-space. At the same time, the findings make clear that more work is needed.

Building on the results from the 2017-2019 project portfolio, in 2020 we launched a new set of projects in all three strands of research (exploratory, industrial and large scale demonstrations). These address several key areas, including urban air mobility (UAM), air traffic management (ATM)/U-space convergence, and advanced U-space services and technologies (U3 and U4), including the development of miniaturisation, automated detect and avoid functionalities, and reliable means of communication. Through the central industrial research project, AURA, we aim to deliver a SESAR solution for the all-important interface between U-space and ATM.”

How can we affordably and effectively protect airspace from rogue drone incursions?

Florian Guillermet: “It requires a multi-stakeholder approach, involving airport operators, air navigation service providers, U-space service providers and military agencies, all sharing information and procedures in a timely fashion. In the area of research and development, work is underway on a broad range of systems that are able to impede so-called rogue-drone flights over non-authorised areas by detecting and neutralising drones. While innovative, these solutions are not necessarily interoperable or customised with airport environments in mind. That is why we have recently launched the ASPRID (Airport System PRotection from Intruding Drones), in which partners will aim to develop a service-oriented operational concept and system architecture to protect airport operations from unwanted drones. With this, the project aims to identify possible technologies, procedures and regulations that could help better safeguard against drone incursions and/or can help them recover from any disruptions as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Alongside this R&D work, Eurocae (WG115) has just published its first standard on the subject, while clear rules are being put in place by regulators to identify and deal quickly with genuine rogue drones.”

Leon van de Pas: “I second Florian’s reply; the protection of certain airspaces and critical infrastructures is not trivial. This requires a multi-stakeholder approach and a combination of different technologies. Depending on the nature of drones, some technologies might be better suited then others – for instance optical vs. radar – both for detection and neutralisation of the threat. Here, the role of a UTM system is to feed the necessary information such as identification, position and  flight plans to enable the C-UAS systems to distinct between friendly or rogue drones.

How does 5G fit into your model for U-space?

Florian Guillermet: “5G has featured in some of our research work, but most has focussed on 4G. Typically, 4G has a longer range than 5G, and should have a satisfactory performance, once tailored for aviation use. However, 5G remains a candidate and research for its use in many elements of aviation continue. It should be remembered that our model for U-space tries, as much as possible, to be technologically agnostic. The aim is to determine performance requirements for every element of U-space, including surveillance, communications, inter-agency data transfer and so on. If this can be achieved with 4G, or 5G or both, then the choice is up to the implementer. This requires the creation of performance requirements, industrial standards and a suitable regulatory/certification regime, all of which are in development.”

Leon van de Pas: “Connectivity is key to allow U-space as well as all UTM systems to evolve in the future. Stakeholders need to be able exchange information on the positions of drones, manned aircraft, flight authorisations, airspaces etc. This also means UTM should be as technologically agnostic as possible. Further, the performance requirements might differ depending on the local situation and the requested application, such as surveillance with streaming video footage. Consider rural versus urban areas, type of airspace, among others. Mobile connectivity in many cases though will have an important role in this.  4G technology in most of the cases offers enough range and bandwidth and thus satisfactory performance for usage in the framework of UTM.  5G is definitely the next thing and will be serving future needs and services requiring higher bandwidth and data volumes.”

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