The Drones are Coming…

According to Dame Deirdre Hutton, Chair of the UK Civil Aviation Authority, drone use is increasing exponentially and if the UK is to cope with increasing demands on its airspace infrastructure then a radical rethink is required, and it needs to happen quickly.

‘Share the Air’ was the title of the CAA’s conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s headquarters in London late last month. Given that the Authority’s senior board members were out on force, including Mark Swan, Director of Safety and Airspace Regulation, and Group CEO Richard Moriarty, as well as Dame Deirdre, the CAA is clearly highly focussed on the topic of airspace access and drone integration and are making this a top priority.

Following on from its public ‘call for evidence’ on Electronic Conspicuity (EC) solutions for aircraft, which concluded on 25 May, the CAA used the conference to provide feedback to industry on its consultation and to start workshopping airspace integration solutions. The message being put out by the regulator was clear: despite concerns from industry that reliance on emergent technology to make all airspace users visible to each other is perhaps premature, electronic conspicuity (EC) devices nonetheless remain the CAA’s preferred method to achieve this. “Airspace for the last 50 years has been sticking plaster to sticking plaster. We need to open the paradigm,” Mark Swan told the conference’s delegates.

it would require 85,000 drones, operating six hours per day, year round, just to service [Amazon] customers in the city of Paris 

The key driver for the change undoubtedly comes from multinational giant corporations such as Amazon and Google, who wish to move their urban parcel delivery services from the ground into the air, and the numbers they are talking about are enormous. According to research undertaken by Delft Technical University (TUDelft) in the Netherlands, last year Amazon delivered 1.5 billion parcels in France alone.

Of these, 70% of the parcels were under 2.2kgs – the maximum weight capable of being delivered by Amazon’s drones and – according to TUDelft – if Amazon were to switch from ground-based delivery to airborne delivery then it would require 85,000 drones, operating six hours per day, year round, just to service its customers in the city of Paris. Extrapolating this figure out to all urban areas and the scale of Amazon’s drone ambitions become apparent.

Sean Cassidy, Director of Safety and Regulatory Affairs for Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery service, said in his presentation at the conference that the ecommerce giant plans to offer a 30-minute click to delivery service to its Prime customers.

In order to achieve this, Amazon will need to be granted Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operational capability and this will require its drones being fitted with autonomous see-and-avoid (EC) technology, which all other airspace users will need to match.

As if to underline Amazon’s seriousness about its drones, in early June it unveiled its latest drone at Amazon’s re:MARS Conference (Machine Learning, Automation, Robotics and Space) in Las Vegas. The drone is designed fly up to 15 miles range and is a hybrid design. It can make vertical take-offs and landings but the shrouds are also the wings, which makes it efficient in flight.

At the Las Vegas conference, an Amazon blogger said that the drone has diverse sensors and advanced algorithms, such as multi-view stereo vision, to detect static objects like a chimney. To detect moving objects, like a paraglider or helicopter, the drone uses proprietary computer-vision and machine learning algorithms. There was no mention of Electronic Conspicuity.

The Amazon blogger also said that the drone finds a safe area to land that is clear of people, animals, or obstacles using ‘explainable stereo vision’ in parallel with sophisticated AI algorithms trained to detect people and animals from above. Through the use of computer-vision techniques Amazon have invented, its drones can recognize and avoid wires as they descend into, and ascend out of, a landing area. The blogger said that Amazon would be: “…delivering packages via drone to customers within months.”

Ecommerce is of course not the only business that wishes to make use of new drone technology, with unmanned air taxis and emergency services also making rapid progress in this sector, and so in a relatively short space of time it is probable that drones will likely outnumber other airborne vehicles by a large factor.

Currently, BVLOS permission requires the creation of a temporary danger area in order to segregate the drone from other airspace users, and the plan is to remove this segregation requirement by equipping all airspace users with EC technology.

The CAA’s preferred EC solution is ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance–broadcast), which is a surveillance technology by which an aircraft determines its position via satellite navigation (GNSS) and periodically broadcasts its’s position, enabling the aircraft to be ‘seen’ and tracked by other aircraft. The information can also be received by air traffic control ground stations as a replacement for secondary surveillance radar, as no interrogation signal is needed from the ground, and reception directly by other airspace users provides them with situational awareness and the capability to allow self-separation.

There are several types of certified ADS-B data links, with the most common ones operating on 978 or 1090MHz. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration is working towards a 978MHz datalink for aircraft operating below 18,000ft, and 1090MHz above that altitude in order to alleviate potential bandwidth congestion. In the UK, the current preference is to use 1090MHz for all airspace users, and this has led to concerns of frequency overload if all airspace users are going to need to equip with the technology.

Leading brands in the General Aviation EC market, including uAvionix, PilotAware and Flarm, have been producing a series of new EC products and GA pilots have been steadily equipping with the technology over the last few years. As these devices use different protocols, compatibility (or ‘interoperability’) has yet to be fully achieved, but they represent a benchmark in terms of technology and acquisition cost (£400-£500) that the CAA appears to be happy with. Full interoperability may only be achieved via ground-based augmentation, with a ground station receiving all types of EC data packets and rebroadcasting in a common format that all devices can read.

Airspace4All (formally FASVIG), a not-for-profit company representing the interests of GA pilots in the CAA’s Airspace Modernisation Programme, commenced running EC trials at three aerodromes earlier this year, including Manchester City Airport (Barton). Steve Cooper, a Flight Safety Information Officer (FISO) at Barton gave an overview of the research project to date.

With 15 aircraft equipped with uAvionix’s SkyEcho EC devices, the aerodrome has been testing the reliability and robustness of the conspicuity solution and findings thus far have been positive.

One issue that has been noted, however, is that these standalone devices can be impeded by ‘shielding’ (the pilot’s body getting the way of the antenna) and that fixed installations (typically a Mode S transponder hooked up to an approved GPS, broadcasting ADS-B out via the fixed antenna on the airframe) are proving to be more reliable. As the uAvionix representative at the conference pointed out, however, its portable devices are designed to work aircraft-to-aircraft rather than via a ground station and so prevention of broadcast shielding to the ground was never a design factor. But if shielding continues to be a problem then the CAA’s £400-£500 price benchmark for EC equipage could quickly be thrown out of the window if more expensive, fixed installations (with associated external aerials etc) are determined to be the only reliable form of EC.

“We can no longer rely on airspace segregation alone…This is not about if this will happen, but when.”
Dame Deirdre Hutton, UK CAA

The CAA says that they intend to roll-out EC in the UK via the introduction of EC-mandated airspace blocks, which has led to a number of GA associations, including the All-Party Parliamentary Group for GA, raising concerns that this is “airspace restriction by stealth”.

The message from the CAA, however, is that this is the most equitable route by which to achieve drone integration into the UK airspace structure and that it is happening, come what may. “We can no longer rely on airspace segregation alone,” commented Dame Deirdre, adding, “This is not about if this will happen, but when.”

GA operators have already spent large sums of money on aircraft avionics upgrades in recent years, due to new requirements to upgrade to Mode S transponders and 8.33KHz radios. Many regard these ‘upgrades’ as purely for the benefit of Commercial Air Transport (CAT), while GA has picked-up the tab. If history repeats itself with ‘EC’ equipage, it appears likely that the GA community could once again be asked to put its hands in its own pockets in large part for the benefit of other airspace users.

For a flying school with a fleet of 10 aircraft or more, these are not insignificant sums, and while EC capability can only be seen as a good thing in terms of safety enhancement, there remain concerns that the technology is immature and that it could quickly be superseded by alternative technology (such as 5G, for example), potentially making the blanket adoption now of current EC technology an expensive blind alley.

The drones are certainly coming, it seems; but at what cost to the rest of the aviation community?

Author: Rob Hall

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