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“We will have automated operations within three years enabled by a UTM system” – Axel Knutsen, Avinor

Axel Knutsen is Vice President of Unmanned Traffic Management at Avinor Air Navigation Services in Norway, winner with industry partner Frequentis of the ATM/UTM integration award at this year’s ATM 2020 Awards

 Avinor has introduced a scalable, automated UAS traffic service system in Norway – how did you develop a clear idea of the architecture?

It was rather a long process. We talked to a lot of vendors and in 2018 we went to the USA to look at the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system to start building an idea of what kind of programme we wanted and how it could be operated. The following year we developed a concept of what services could be provided by industry and what was not yet mature, which led to a release of the tender in summer 2019. We spoke with the vendors about the finer parts of the design, the functionality and the details of the project during the tender process.

As a result of these conversations, we made some changes to the original concept – for the better. So it’s been a long but fruitful process for all sides, with almost daily changes to the regulatory and technical frameworks.

Did you have to change very much as a result of the European Aviation Safety Agency publishing its draft U-space rules and are you happy with the latest proposals?

Yes, in principle we are. There is a final draft to be released imminently so we will see what this version looks like. We have managed some flexibility into the contract we have with Frequentis to take account of how this may evolve.

Do you foresee other U-Space service suppliers coming on board to provide tactical UTM services?

Yes, absolutely. We want our UTM system to be based on cooperation. Some parts should be delegated, or mandated, to be operated by Avinor but for other elements of the system – like tactical airspace management – that could be done by partners, competitors or anyone else with an interest in UTM. We are frim that this is not going to be a monopolistic service and we will encourage partners to come along once everything is up and running and we have a regulatory baseline.  We will need to develop a certification process to certify participants and the means by which they connect to the system.

Have you got a clear understanding of what safety data is going to be shared? What’s going to go through the central platform and what isn’t?

I don’t think anyone yet has the full picture but sharing safety data is the core functionality of the system and this will clearly be regulated.  Right now it’s rather easy in the UTM system to identify where someone is flying, altitude, the type of operations and predicted flights but once this become more dynamic with more users and UTM service providers (USPs) connected to the system, the flow is going to be more complicated.  So I think the services delivered by the system – or to the system -will affect what kind of data will be processed.

Tactical deconfliction is some way into the future.

Yes. We have a high volume of drones in Norway but not so high that we have to do tactical deconfliction at the moment—it’s more a question of helping the controllers and drone operators understand the airspace; giving operators the ability to request permissions on the go, not weeks, not days, but actually for when they’re flying. We are getting a lot of positive feedback on this. The next stage is when we have more autonomous operations and when we involve larger airspaces. That’s the one everyone’s waiting for and that when tactical deconfliction will be essential.

Do you have a timescale for this?

We are already looking at these types of operations. Our UTM service roadmap is aligned with what we expect to be the requested services from drone operators. We have many drone operators in Norway and some of them, such as Nordic Unmanned, are large organisations undertaking pioneering work. Nordic Unmanned was the first to fly to an offshore installation and are starting to request very complex services from the UTM system.  So we are working on more than just random trialling; we will have automated operations within two or three years in Norway enabled by a UTM system.

Of course there are many issues still be tackled, such as what’s going to be regulated in an automated operation, but the technical side of things is maturing rather fast in UTM.

Will Avinor generate revenue from its UTM system?

We need to generate revenue – everyone using airspace services for commercial reasons pays for these services and it’s been that way for manned aviation since the start. At the moment the drone industry is not paying but there is a thriving drone operator community in Norway and they are asking to pay because then they will have access to more services and this will help them accelerate their business. They want us to be serious partners.  Most drone operators in Europe are seen as nuisances, troublemakers. We don’t believe that’s right. We want to include them, give them more services which they will have to pay for but then be able to demand their rights. It’s in their commercial interest to do so.

The revenue streams are not that clear at the moment. But we see many different potential ways how this could be sorted so I’m not too worried about it. I think these things will fall into place within the next year and a half.

What’s been the reaction of the drone industry and controllers (ATCOs) to your UTM programme?

As a former ATCO myself I can understand what controllers would like to see and how they operate. From the start we involved them in the project, invited tech optimists and sceptics to speak their minds freely and say what they liked, what they disliked, what they found simple and what they found too complicated. They’ve been able to affect the tender and the sessions we’ve had with Frequentis, to define what information would they like to see and how the workflow should operate.

I think most of them understand that drones are not toys anymore and we’ve been active in giving them information about the drone community in Norway.

We have also had very active cooperation with the drone industry body UAS Norway; we asked them for input a couple of times and although they were not directly involved in the project we developed a good understanding of what drone operators would like. Of course, we can’t fulfil all their needs at the moment but we’re designing this system to help them and their operations.

The feedback from the launch of the system at the first two airports has been very positive, especially from ATCOs, who until now have had to deal with flight requests with pen and paper, emails, telephone and no standardisation of data.

Drone operators are also happy, especially those operating near busy airports. At Tromso, for example, there is a very large drone community and a university offering a bachelor degree course involving drone flights in close vicinity to the airport. That is our most active drone airport. It is located in the middle of the city on an island so everyone who wants to fly a drone is subject to approval from air traffic control.  Before we started with this project you had to first apply to the tower for permission to be an approved drone flyer. Then you had to submit a plan via email and were given a two-hour slot every day to fly. So for a ten minute photoshoot, they had to file a plan two weeks in advance. Now they can do it via the app and they get an answer in seconds or minutes.  So they are extremely happy about it.

Will any of the UTM elements migrate to the ATM system?

In the long term yes but for the moment it’s complicated as ATM requires processing regulated technical files in a closed system. So it’s more about integrating into operations than into the ATM system itself.  There is a great potential around how we want to display the information, how we want to use it and what we want to send to the ATM system and vice versa.  Full integration is going to take a long time.

What technologies do you use for flight tracking?

Our ATM system uses several different tracking methods but as we don’t yet have a standard for drone-tracking, we’re not that focussed on tracking the drone itself. Most drone operators in Norway fly without a transponder, for instance, so we can’t see them.

But you can authorise beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) without tracking or remote ID via the UTM system?

Yes – as long as the operations are not extremely complex and they are flying at low altitudes for a relative short duration. We have a lot of BVLOS operations already in Norway; we’ve had drone operation category standards called R1, R2, R3 in Norway for some time, similar to Open, Specific and Certified, with more than 100 operators licensed for R3 missions, the heaviest category where they can fly over people with a camera and undertake major inspections.

Have you looked at remote ID? Could you incorporate it into the system when the technology becomes available?

Yes. We are looking at it and following the debate in Europe and the USA. There’s a lot of strong opinions going in all directions on this topic so I’m keen to see where it lands.  If there is a standard which will work for everyone – and I hope that happens soon – this will certainly drive the industry and we will be able to incorporate into our system.

How do you see the drone industry in Norway developing?

We see double digit percentage increases every year for drone operations and during the COVID-19 pandemic it has increased further. Many of the larger industrial players in Norway are using this as a basis to implement new environmental improvement programmes and to use drones to replace helicopter services. Nordic Unmanned was the first drone operator to be listed on the Stock Exchange in Europe. The industry has been steadily growing for the past 15 years; we have a lot of good people on board now so the industry has a bright future.

Have you looked at any urban air mobility UTM plans?

Absolutely. There are UAM launch initiatives underway in Norway – projects for the Oslo municipality and neighbouring Kongsberg, for example, where a research programme has been started to look at how to link these cities, first to transport blood samples and eventually, passengers. These are well funded and involve key players so we are contributing where our expertise is required.

What about introducing non-compliant or rogue drone tracking systems – are these elements of your UTM system?

Not yet. But our industrial partner Frequentis is also in the counter UAS business and we have had some discussion with them on how to integrate counter UAS systems into the UTM eco-system, developing an integrated ‘golden triangle’ world of UTM, ATM and counter-UAS.  So it is something that is in the future. Right now we are struggling to get past the hurdle of dealing with 500 or 600 counter UAS system manufacturers selling their equipment at extremely high prices. We have 44 airports so we need to need to build a complete picture of our needs before we can do anything else.

Are you moving towards developing a UTM system for all lower airspace management, manned and unmanned flights?

I see great potential here, not from a business viewpoint but from the safety case perspective. There are very strong arguments that we should implement airspace management at lower levels for more than drones, maybe implementing “universal” rather than “unmanned” traffic management concepts.

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