“There will be a time when traditional traffic will yield to drone traffic” – FAA’s Jay Merkle


By Jenny Beechener


US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Office Director Jay Merkle says today’s right of way rules will evolve as operations become more complex and the drone industry continues to innovate. “There will be times when traditional traffic will yield to drone traffic under conditions,” he says. While the role of the FAA is to maintain aviation safety and security, he says the agency is trying to govern as little as possible while providing performance standards for operators. “If we are open to what is going on, what risks are bring managed, there are tremendous opportunities to ensure equitable access to the airspace.”


Jay Merkle was speaking at a webinar hosted by the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) entitled Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) & Air Traffic Management (ATM): Integrate now or later? 13 October 2020. The FAA is just days away from announcing a new industry engagement that will start in November or early December and will look at provision of third-party services and contribute to the development of industry-consensus standards. “We are looking to enable operations below 400 ft, moving towards beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). This should come to fruition in December.”

French air navigation service provider DSNA is also working closely with industry to develop UTM standards. DSNA U-Space Programme Director Antoine Martin believes “UTM cannot be like ATM” and the industry “needs something new”. To achieve this, DSNA is looking to work with as many partners as possible in an open initiative launched last year bring in fresh ideas combined with DSNA know-how. “We are about to launch a new call for partnership in November, in addition to the eight partners already contracted,” as part of a roadmap that anticipates the first operational architecture in 2023.


The DSNA approach is “iterative, scalable, flexible and collaborative,” says Antoine Martin. “There are many issues surrounding governance and regulation. What is the paradigm between the state, industry, military, and service providers, and what are the business cases? We have to work in collaboration in order to be innovative. We don’t, as an ANSP, have the know-how to deal with all those questions or technology.”


Separate work on UTM standards development in underway in Australia where the drone industry is evolving rapidly. Department of Infrastructure Assistant Director Dale Sheridan says the department is working with industry and other stakeholders to develop a “combination of government centralised services and de-centralised industry-developed services,” erring towards a more de-centralised or federated approach. “Unless there’s a need to centralise, for example cyber security or system integrity, it probably should be federated.” Australia’s ANSP Airservices is embarking on pilot programmes with industry to test some of these ideas.


“We want our UTM to be interoperable with our ATM system, and also consistent with the broader airspace management objectives to ensure that our airspace is compatible with all existing and emerging airspace users.” This long-term view extends to other sectors. “We see UTM playing a harmonisation role across different government regulatory agencies in Australia. If UTM can manage a rule set regarding aviation safety, why can’t it also handle a broader set?”


Dale Sheridan identifies some gaps in the current discussions: “There is not much talk in international discussions around policy coordination and system governance of UTMs. We see this as an oversight as we see this aspect of UTM to be vital to the success and sustainability of the system. UTM will continue to evolve as we continue to hit those technology horizons over the short, medium and long term.”


Another agency about to start field trials is the UK innovation agency Connected Places Catapault – set up by government to accelerate new market opportunities. The UK is an early pioneer of UTM research and launched a large collaborative industry/government research project 15 years ago which resulted in very early systems guidance documents. As a result, the UK’s BVLOS market is thriving, says Connected Places Catapault Chief Technology Officer Mark Westwood. The public-private agency is two years into a UTM programme aimed at shaping regulations and supporting industry growth. “We are just moving into an exciting phase of the open-access UTM project. We want to develop a framework that suits UK government needs and also gives room to innovate within the market.” A trial lasting six to nine months is due to start in early 2021 to field-test elements of the UTM framework including U-space services, data exchanges and communications.


Westwood points to the breadth of regional variations that need to be taken into account. “In densely populated areas, it is easier to make a business case for UTM services. In sparsely populated areas, you may need to pay to provide services.” This led to a shift in thinking and recognition of the role played by the state in driving forward some of the new technologies. “This has driven us towards a framework that allows a mix of different approaches and engages with a wider community including regulatory and legal interests.”


Global harmonisation


With projects underway in different part of the world, international harmonisation is high on the agenda of all the speakers. “Traditional aviation has harmonised systems around the world,” says Jay Merkle. “It puzzles me why unmanned aviation should be different. The same underlying safety reasons that drive us to global harmonisation for manned aviation should drive us to same harmonisation for unmanned.” This is clearly a safety imperative: “If we do that, we keep the complexity of the design down – something that can lead to software/hardware/human error.”


Mark Westwood identifies additional risks. “Public acceptance is not given. We need to keep the public engaged in what we are doing. If the market develops in an unconstrained way in different parts of the world, that will in turn hurt our own market. There are strong drivers for a harmonised programme.”


Holding back progress is the lack of consistency when it comes to defining what comprises UTM. “I see a lot of UTM concepts evolving,” says Dale Sheridan. “There is not international consensus on what we are harmonising to what extent. A globally harmonised approach is a great goal, but the reality is more nuanced.” Australia is looking at what is out already there and what is transferrable. “We also need to make sure what we are harmonising isn’t too reflective of any one jurisdiction,” warns Dale Sheridan. “It shouldn’t be too North American, too European, or too Australian. We need to understand the core aspects of UTM, the policy framework and standards, and think about what elements really need to be transferable, and which need to be open to interpretation.” With a lot of standards beginning to emerge, it is important that these are balanced and flexible, bearing in mind many governments are yet to embark on this process. “It is important to ensure technical standards and technology doesn’t driving those policy approaches.”


In order to achieve this, rule-making activity needs to stay close to industry says Jay Merkle, “to make sure we all reach the same objectives at the same time. This is the biggest challenge, brings the biggest risk but also the biggest reward.”


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