“For us, UTM should mean ‘unified traffic management’” – interview with Andrew Sage of NATS

NATS and Altitude Angel recently announced a strategic partnership to develop unmanned traffic management (UTM) solutions in the UK. What will this deliver?

What we’re doing with Altitude Angel is a response to two challenges: a growing safety issue within the UK – and we have an obligation to our existing airspace users to maintain safety – while supporting the government and the regulator in promoting the UK as a great place for drone operators to do business. But we will not do that unless we can integrate them safely into our airspace.  It’s the first step towards creating a UTM that can begin to support more interesting and complex drone operations.  If you want to send a parcel from A to B it’s not much use if you have to stay within visual line of sight; as we move towards more complex operations it will involve integration with other airspace users and for that we need a new response.

How will the two organisations work together?

Altitude Angel will provide the software solution and central data management capability that is scalable up to many, many thousands of users in an automated fashion. This is a capability that we don’t have today within NATS.  It’s great to have one of the world’s leading companies doing this work based in the UK so we’ve chosen to work with them and support them. As the airspace manager we will be able to utilise that platform to make sure we can produce a single picture, a single point of truth for all airspace users sharing the airspace.

So you’ve got airspace above 500ft and below 500ft – are you going to integrate them into a single control area?

It’s impossible to predict the long-term future of how this airspace will be managed but I don’t believe the answer is in increased segregation of a very, very busy airspace. That may have to be the answer in the short term but we’d much rather see a freer, multi-user use of airspace. In some ways we like to view UTM as meaning “unified traffic management” because we don’t want to see different solutions for different users in the same airspace – we don’t believe that’s the best way to manage things. Altitude Angel will be providing the core platform that will allow us to safely integrate drone users into those parts of airspace that we manage today. It will give different users of the open, visual flight rules part of airspace a better chance of staying in visual line of sight of each other and staying away from each other.

Where does that leave NATS’ responsibility for very low level airspace? Are you responsible for very low level airspace – 300ft, 200ft, 100ft?

An interesting question. It’s all up in the air in the UK at the moment – as in every other country. We could sit around and wait for that clarity to emerge but meanwhile we have an obligation to do something about safety. In the long term that will all need to be defined. But we’re taking a proactive approach – as NATS often does – to try to maintain the safety of all users in the airspace today. We actively manage controlled airspace and provide a variety of information services, such as NOTAMs. We believe these will have to move on another level to cope with the introduction of drones and we are therefore responding as best we can to be able to improve flight information services in low level airspace. We are often approached by drone operators who want to operate services here. They want certainty.  They want a clear framework they can work within to build those business and safety cases and we are working with them to do that.

But someone must own the airspace.

It’s the same as with general aviation operators today – they operate under visual flight rules and are obliged to have the right level of training and a platform that is airworthy and have visibility to be able to see and avoid other aircraft. The same is exactly true of a drone pilot, that’s why we insist on visual line of sight, because we believe that in those circumstances they should have the ability to do so. Some of the measures that the government’s proposing in terms of online education linked with registration is all aimed as far as is practical at trying to reduce the risk of that occurring. I think we’re up to over 50,000 registered users on our Drone Assist app now in the UK that continues to provide a constant flow of education awareness and real-time alerts to users and we’ll continue to advance that[i] service to try and make a difference. Sometimes that can be the key.

You see drones and general aviation as a continuum.

I see absolutely no way that a drone operator can come along and develop a safety case for a complex beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operation unless that’s the case. I see no other way. Unless one segregates the airspace which is not our intent.

I think people have traditionally viewed UTM as something that will address drone operations in an isolated way in the short term – then maybe in the long term these automated tools can be something that can benefit the world of manned aviation.  We’ve discovered exactly the opposite. The more we look at these tools the more they become a really effective automated means of dealing with non-controlled air traffic management and therefore we are deploying this technology not just to help airspace access to drones, but also areas like transitions across controlled airspace for general aviation traffic. That’s already in use in our operations room, on our supervisor’s desk today.

What has been the controller response to these issues?

The introduction of the new tool for geo-transition has been enormously welcomed. It’s taken workload away from controllers, it’s got rid of paper and pens that were required to do the job before. The more we can reduce the workload the better. We’re also releasing this year new tools for our non-standard flight plan notification service, which has been growing and growing in terms of demand, putting more and more pressure on our team doing that work. So, again, that’s going to take some of the workload off the workforce, enabling them to deliver a more effective service.

Is UTM a cost centre or a profit centre for NATS?

Well let me ask the same question of ATM – who does ATM? It’s distributed between the pilot, the kit on the aircraft, the owner of the aircraft, the infrastructure on board, the air traffic controllers. No one person does ATM and yet we understand it as a total concept.  The same applies to UTM.  If you think about it as being a new form of automated traffic management that’s fit for purpose for general aviation and drones then it’s the same. It’s distributed between the capabilities on board the drone and the flight planning that goes into it.

But UTM is a different concept, it requires a different kind of approach to air safety regulation and air traffic management.

It does. And if you think about the scale of UTM users compared to the costs of running an ATM system we would kill the market in one week. So you have to have something that’s proportionate to the safety risk and proportionate to these operations.

In ATM we know where the money comes from to build and operate the system. Where is it going to come from in UTM?

The money’s going to come as we evolve into beyond visual line of sight operations – that’s when you will start to see really valuable and powerful operations, whether it’s transporting blood, medical supplies, search-and-rescue, infrastructure, or even just a basic package delivery. The business cases for all of these are compelling in terms of saving manpower, reduction in delivery times, improvement in safety.  We believe that from these business cases the money should emerge to fund the services that will support them. In an open and competitive market there’s certainly room for many of them.

We wish to provide a core UTM infrastructure that shares that data among all parties, allowing the widest possible downstream competition of service providers to make use of that data and serve those operators.

In the same way today if you think about general aviation, we provide the basic underlying NOTAM flight information services for the likes of Rocket Route or Sky Demon and all the other commercial flight planning providers.

So the money is going to come from commercial drone operators?

We believe so, yes.

Do you think the government could pay for any public-safety related UTM services?

I think in the short term there is clearly a benefit to government. In the long term I think this is a market that should be self-sustaining.  But it’s early days. For example, the Department for Transport is helping to fund a project that will define the no-fly zones in the UK that will be in force next year.  We’re part of that project. That’s been driven by central government. The government is also funding a number of drone innovation schemes and trials across UK cities.

Are you going to be a global player in UTM?

Right now we are focused on the UK. We’ve created a partnership with Altitude Angel and that’s plenty to keep us busy for now.

When do you see the first commercial drone flight beyond visual line of sight taking place, paying for a UTM service?

I might be sticking my neck out but I would say 2020. I think you will see demonstrations of these services from this year. You will start to see safety cases for unsegregated airspace from next year. I think they will become routine services, part of everyday air traffic control, integrated with air traffic control in 2020.

Shouldn’t one of your key priorities be to protect the airspace around airports from disruptive drone incursions?

This is the only reason why we’re doing all of this. The number of airprox safety reports related to drones reached 50% of the total for the first time last year. We all saw disruption that happened around Gatwick last year (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0rfFFZ332k); it’s difficult to tell whether those drone flights were acting legally or not but in the absence of any information the controllers in the tower had no idea who the operators were or what their intent was. So to protect safety the controllers felt they had no choice but to divert traffic and we know that will continue to happen in the future.

What are you doing now to protect the airspace around airports?

We’re working with the Department for Transport as quickly as we can to develop a new digital data product that will form part of our aeronautical information service. That will define categorically where those no-fly zones are. It will be integrated into all apps and platforms within the UK and will allow the authorities to enforce measures against people flying into those zones, once we get registration and other measures that the UK government will be putting through the Drone Bill next year.

Will that include tracking of unregistered drones?

We would support as much electronic conspicuity/visibility of all aircraft, manned and unmanned, as we can, because the more we can see the better. This tranche of legislation won’t go as far as that now, but we see other drivers as well. So we’re in discussions with the insurance industry and we believe there are plenty of drivers out there towards increased visibility, increased flight-filing that will encourage industry in the right direction even in the absence of regulation in the short term.

How do you stop the unregistered drone?

You will never be able to stop a determined rogue drone operator from flying. I think the end solution for airports will be a combination of the type of information system we’re talking about here – which tells them who the responsible operators are around them – and some kind of counter-drone passive-drone technology near the airport. NATS is looking into a number of solutions at the moment for this.  We’re looking into one or two airports to trial technology and find cost-effective ways of spotting and identifying those drones within the vicinity of an airport.

Do you have a preferred timescale for registration of drone operators and owners?

I’m very happy with what the UK government’s proposing – it can’t come soon enough as far as we’re concerned. I’m pleased the UK appears to be implementing it in a way that is consistent with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulation, but ahead of it, so I think that will come into effect next year. In the meantime we’ll be making sure that we’ll implement the infrastructure within Altitude Angel so that we’ll be ready for that.

Drone registration next year?

Yes

And geo-fencing?

The geo-fencing and the publication of no-fly zones will be part of the initial tranche of legislation around registration next year. We intend to publish our first draft consultation defining those no-fly zones across the UK later this year and will cover not just aerodromes but also identified sites of security by government. But we’re trying to adopt a relatively liberal approach compared to other States. We’ll be trying to focus on those of safety and security interests only.

Is Brexit helping or hindering?

A bit of both. I think if we remain associated with EASA Brexit or no-Brexit shouldn’t have too much of an impact. We’re in constant discussions with a number of other ANSPs across Europe, sharing ideas and staying consistent with what our colleagues across the continent are trying to do because we don’t want solutions that are national-specific. That’s going to cost a lot of money.

The perception is that every European State is adopting slightly different approaches to implementing UTM services.

They are, but these are very scalable solutions we’re talking about. This is not like building a CNS (communications, navigation and surveillance) system where if you don’t choose the right technology to the right standards you have wasted your money. These are data solutions which are flexible, scalable. It’s one of the reasons we picked Altitude Angel because regardless of how the market may shift and change we feel as though it’s a capability that will stand the test of time regardless of what those regulations might say.

The UK has very complex airspace. If you get there first that gives you valuable pioneering knowledge. Is this an expertise that you can pass on to other countries?

We’re sharing a lot of lessons learned with other ANSPs. There are things in which we are much further ahead and others that other ANSPs are choosing to focus on and we’re sharing with one another. We’re focussed on maintaining safety and providing equal access to airspace in the UK and that’s keeping us busy.

Andrew Sage is head of drone at NATS, the UK’s air navigation service provider

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