Trent Fulcher is CEO of New Zealand’s AirShare UTM company
Can you tell me about AirShare – its background, strategic aims and whether it is a for-profit company and if so where the income will come from?
The basic AirShare service was put in place about four years ago as an aid to ATC to support the growing number of requests to fly UAVs in controlled airspace, and was essentially a web front end that enabled operators to see where they can/can’t fly, apply for access to controlled airspace, and receive approval or denial to fly. This basic service has worked very well for New Zealand since that time, with over 100,000 flights logged through the system.
Given the exponential growth we’re seeing in drone numbers, a growing number of requests to fly in controlled airspace, as well as an increased number of uncontrolled airspace close encounters with manned aviation, we decided last year to rethink our offering and capability. Given the need to move quickly, innovation rapidly and drive hard towards the goal of safe integration of UAVs into the existing aviation system, we subsequently increased its strategic priority at Airways, put a new business model in place, and ensured we had the necessary funding and team in place to support.
We’ve got over 14,000 registered AirShare users.
What are your key objectives for the next three years?
Our primary objective this year is to improve situational awareness of all aviation participants in and around controlled airspace. What this means in practice is UAV operators, by using our apps and tools, can see where they are flying as well as have visibility of other UAVs or manned aircraft in the area along with real-time separation alerts. For ATC this means greater awareness of UAV traffic in controlled airspace as well as venturing into controlled airspace, and providing them with a filtered view of UAV flights that they need to be aware of. This should keep us busy this year. Next year we’ll be looking at tighter integration with ATM as well as other transport and communications infrastructure across the country.
What has been the take-up by drone operators of your Android and iOS flight authorisation mobile apps? Perhaps you could give me some idea of the work that was required to develop these apps?
Our users have been using our web app for about four now for access into controlled airspace. We launched mobile apps a few months ago that now provide access to both controlled and uncontrolled airspace, as well as integrating land owner approvals, situational awareness and other capabilities. We’ve had good usage and feedback from our community, with lots of ideas on how we can make the apps even more valuable for operators. In a few months we’ll be releasing some very cool new features which should make flying UAVs easier and safer.
How does the AirShare system work in parallel to – or integrated within – Airways New Zealand’s ATM system?
Today our UTM system is integrated with our Leidos ATM, enabling approved flights into controlled airspace to be incorporated into the ATCs dashboard as an electronic flight strip. We’re in constant communication with our ATC groups about how we can make their experience easier, reduce friction, etc., so we’re planning a deeper level of integration with ATM in the coming months.
When do you see the first apps becoming available for BVLOS flight authorisations? How are you working with the regulator to ensure appropriate risk assessments for these authorisation will be in place?
We’ve been trialling the underlying technology to support BVLOS flights, including detect-and-avoid and command-and-control capabilities. We’ve worked closely with our regulators on these trials and have followed the JARUS SORA approach along the way. We’re planning on adding the necessary capability to our apps and tools in the next year to enable BVLOS, to ensure we’re ready to support the industry when the regulator is comfortable with the underlying safety case required.
What are you largest technical or institutional challenges to helping support the expansion of drone operations in the country?
Probably the lack of regulation around registration and e-identification. Given we don’t have either in New Zealand, our approach has been to give our users apps and tools which make their operations better, easier and with less friction – ultimately adding value to them. In the absence of regulation, you’ve got to give people something valuable or they won’t use the tools available.
What has been the attitude of regulators to introducing the flight authorisation processes?
Good and we’ve been collaborating together on this for over 4yrs.
What work is being undertaken to ensure drones can be tracked and identified in sensitive airspace areas (around airports for example) and beyond the range of mobile networks?
There is no silver bullet for this so we’re trying lots of things, including location-based services on the operators mobile phone, deeper integration with drone manufacturers, and hardware transmitter devices (eg, GPS/LTE). These tools, with the big caveat that they also will add value to the operator’s experience, we expect to cover the majority of operators who want to be compliant and do the right thing. For the few that are left, we’re trialling drone detection technology, including radar, RF and cameras. These technologies, integrated with a robust UTM environment, will allow you to filter out the bad from the good and present the right information to ATC to make informed decisions on.
How will AirShare’s work programme evolve into the urban air mobility sector?
We’re in discussions with multiple UAM providers right now to understand their needs and expectations. Given our already tight UTM-ATM integration, we appear to have a bit of a head start in our ability to support UAM operations in the future. Still lots of work to do in this area.