For Thales, drone air traffic control is a long game

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In November 2017, Thales – the Paris-headquartered electronics group – made a noteworthy acquisition. Its target was Aveillant, a Cambridge, UK-based start-up that has pioneered a technology called holographic radar.

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The technology was first tested from late 2012 at an installation near Cambridge airport – not, incidentally, in the vicinity of Wadlow wind farm. Wind farms – arrays of big, spinning blades – pose a particular challenge to normal radar systems, but the Aveillant technique promises to distinguish reliably between wind farm Doppler returns and aircraft of all sizes and speeds. The first airport installation came last summer, at Paris Charles de Gaulle, to detect drones.

At the time of those first trials, chief executive David Crisp told FlightGlobal that the technology, originally devised to track shells on military gunnery ranges, could be described as “disruptive” but not as a replacement for standard air traffic management radar; rather, it should be deployed as an extra layer of detection in difficult areas.

Indeed, Thales announced its acquisition as “a new capability complementing its surveillance offering”, adding that holographic radars provide “a permanent and complete picture of the total air space volume”. The technique, in short, “is ideally adapted to the growing drone market, enabling the detection, tracking and classification of very small, moving targets such as UAVs.”

As Thales’s head of unmanned air systems traffic management (UTM), Olivier Rea, puts it, the acquisition “shows our commitment” to safe drone operations.

For the UAV community generally, and Thales as a company developing UTM systems to manage operations in ordinary civil airspace, Rea believes the key challenge for the coming year or so is to demonstrate that unmanned systems can be operated safely. But, he notes, while the systems have matured greatly, they are not yet at a level where large-scale operations can be safely undertaken. As he puts it, the US Federal Aviation Administration is telling the UAV industry that it could change regulations to accommodate them and, rightly, asks: “But can you comply?” The answer today, says Rea, is “no”. So, now is the time to show that it can be done.

But operating in safety is just one element in an array of issues facing drone operators and companies such as Thales. When trying to introduce UAV operations, it is a mistake to think of air traffic control as one system, operated with central oversight by national air navigation service providers (ANSPs) such as the FAA or Eurocontrol, which co-ordinates the various national providers in Europe. It is also missing a key element to think of UTM as having to deal with large, co-ordinated airspace zones.

To understand that distinction, note that the traditional market for Thales, says Rea, is ordinary air traffic control (ATC). But the company has been investing in adjacent markets, and one of those, naturally, is UTM. This is still aviation, it is still air traffic control and it is still dealing with flying objects. But, he says, the big challenge is that in practice, for the foreseeable future, any UTM system will be dealing with very small segments of air space – the tight corridor of a parcel delivery operation, for example.

So, it will be necessary to have a very high degree of automation if large numbers of drones are going to safely share that space; Thales describes its UTM effort as directed towards the development of a “digital platform” able to connect operational, safety and security needs of UAS operators.

And, he says, because drones are disruptive technologically and commercially, UTM systems will need to be paid for by a services-based business model which will vary by country. Rea cites the example of highway tolls, which are common in some countries and rare or nonexistent in others.

For ANSPs, he stresses, capital expenditure budgets are limited and, today, are being largely consumed by preparations for the US NextGen and European SESAR transformations of ATC. Without that centralised investment capability, any UTM system can move forward only if it is supported by a pay-for-service funding model. Thus, Rea envisions UTM being – for now – separate from ATC, and also divided into a low-altitude zone, for operations below 500ft, and soon a high-altitude zone, above 60,000ft. In between is the domain of ordinary civil air traffic, managed by normal ATC.

However, he hopes that in 10 or 15 years’ time there will be only one, seamless notion of “ATC”; segregation, he says, “is a first step, it should not be seen as the final step.”

There is, though, another important aspect to this problem of creating a UTM system that eventually converges with ATC. What we do in developing UTM, says Rea, will influence the broader system of air traffic management. ATC evolves slowly, he says, because airlines’ operations cannot be changed quickly. Also, ATC as it exists today is a robust system with long-established standards of redundancy, safety and resilience. But UTM is a clean-sheet project in support of novel operations based on new technology, and so is fast-evolving with much “learning by working”. Rea sees an opportunity to “build the environment we expect”, in terms of technology, regulations and business models. Beyond that, he says, comes the question of convergence with ATC.

That convergence, he stresses, will be “a long journey”. But Rea sees attitudes changing. Where UAVs were once a safety and capacity worry, they are now seen as an opportunity. If ANSP fees are capped, unmanned services represent new revenue. At the highest level, he notes, just three years ago in Europe, SESAR was thought of as ATC, with the military looking after drones. But now, UTM is regarded as falling under the SESAR umbrella – which makes sense if the longer-term goal is integration.

NEW YORK TRIALS

A Thales concept for unmanned aerial system traffic management (UTM) is playing a role in NASA and US Federal Aviation Administration efforts to develop an unmanned air vehicle traffic management (UTM) system that can be handed over to the FAA next year.

Introduced last year and selected by the FAA in October to support its Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), Thales’s ECOsystem UTM concept is described as a flexible, cyber-secure digital platform that “bridges the gap between safety and security requirements of authorities and operational needs of civil users of unmanned systems”. LAANC aims to simplify the process for small UAV operators to comply with US regulations, and eventually integrate their operations into US national airspace.

Last month, NASA has formally brought Thales on board through a Space Act Agreement to evaluate low-altitude UAV airspace control for flights below 400ft. Thales is working with other NASA partners at the FAA's test site, at Griffiss International airport in Rome, New York.

NASA's UTM development scheme assumes a high degree of automation to monitor individual vehicles, leaving human operators to make strategic decisions related to initiation, continuation, and termination of operations. Field testing at FAA sites has been ongoing since 2015, including work on beyond-line-of-sight operations in sparsely populated areas. In spring 2018, evaluations will focus on technologies that maintain safe spacing between co-operative (responsive) and non-co-operative (non-responsive) UAVs over moderately populated areas.

Subsequent testing will focus on operations in higher-density urban areas for tasks such as news-gathering and package delivery, along with management of "large-scale contingencies".

Olivier Rea, head of UTM solutions at Thales, says the NASA agreement gives the company access to the US market as a "full provider". Since Space Act Agreements are typically signed with US companies, he adds: "It’s a big step for us."