Thales highlights the challenges facing drone safety

ATM spoke with Todd Donovan, Vice President of Airspace Mobility Solutions at Thales USA as a follow on their recent announcement that to integrate new and existing infrastructure into a cloud-based traffic management software as a service (SaaS) platform supporting users at the Grand Sky network operations facility near Grand Forks, North Dakota. This announcement came in conjunction with drone safety week. During our discussion we looked at the company’s overall strategy for drones.

Donovan spoke of a ‘sanitised’ airspace. The ability to ensure safety in uncontrolled and visual flights rules (VFR) airspace needs to be part of an overall solution for drone safety. The ability to monitor and investigate situations in lower airspace are dependent upon the procedures that are put in place by the drone operators. Bringing this together (and with manned airspace) will require more automation and smarter aircraft to drive dynamic solutions. Within Thales, the greater aviation set of solutions are being considered to understand how these avionics tools can be used related to UAS. One example could be geo-fencing.

The risks can be sorted into two categories – avoiding airborne collisions and protecting people and property on the ground. But location matters. The level of risk is directly related to the location the aircraft is flying. In a rural area, the risk is lower. Whereas, in urban areas the risk grows due to the level of activity on the ground and then exponentially increases based on the level of activity in the sky. Gathering all of the disparate data sources to define the ground risk is a key requirement in these discussions.

In some regions the ANSPs are already in the lead when it comes to approving drone flights. Take for example, the United States, where the FAA is managing this using its LAANC tool to provide pre-authorisation for flight. As there are strong community requirements in the US such as level of permitted noise or traffic over specific areas, it’s easy to see how complex this can become.

Next we need to consider connectivity and security. There’s been a lot of discussion about the use of mobile networks to communicate with drones while in flight. The concern is, there isn’t always connectivity in all locations. Consider how often you see ‘no service’ or one bar on your mobile phone when moving into more rural areas. Traditional aviation uses data link services and this could be a direction for at least the larger drones to migrate towards.

Security comes down to trust. Who is operating the drone? Can the data being sent be trusted? Is the whole picture what/who we think it is? Digital Identity Technology or RemoteID needs to be established in order to ensure trust.

Circling back to the primary users of drones in their businesses. Initially we’ll see first responders, state and local governments implementing. Organisations that already have access to airspace for their helicopters, such as police and rescue services, will gain easier access to the airspace. The second category could focus on linear inspection requirements. Organisations with pipelines, wind farms and roads that require regular inspection. The use of drones increases efficiency, safety and data collection. The third category is expected to humanitarian use cases and medical supply delivery.

Bringing together ATM and UTM must happen in the long run. Although this may not be as easy as it sounds. Integrating systems is different than everything being integrated into one system. ATM is a human-centric system. There needs to be a human interacting with all flights. UTM should be compared to a machine-to-machine interaction with human supervision. What information goes to the human and what information goes to the machine needs to be sorted out. Tests are already underway in temporary airspace to try and explore how this might work. Dynamic traffic and dynamic airspace need to align to move forward.