UK planning major BVLOS drone trials at Manchester Airport as part of Operation Zenith

Ground-breaking trials to be held later this month are aimed at showing whether it’s possible to safely integrate unmanned traffic into controlled airspace and open up the skies to commercial airspace worldwide.

Altitude Angel, British provider NATS, together with their partners believe that no UTM solution is complete without the ability to integrate deeply and seamlessly into existing ATM systems and processes, and to work out how both cooperative and uncooperative drone traffic (and potential risks) can be detected and mitigated.

The solution being proposed at Manchester Airport is designed for deployment by air navigation service providers and provides a fully configurable, standards-compliant platform for ANSP use. It is powered using the GuardianUTM Airspace Management Operating System, a purpose-built platform which allows the secure data exchange between ATM systems and UTM providers.

The project is being delivered using NATS’ air traffic control operations, the Controlled Traffic Zone (CTR) at Manchester Airport, and various non-segregated live actions supported by a range of partners.

Operation Zenith will take place on Wednesday 21 November at Manchester Airport and will be live streamed to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London.

The partners said it is critical to the success of the programme to demonstrate several key characteristics that also set the demonstrations apart from other drone demos observed worldwide:

Realistic use of airspace: to date, most demos – particularly of BVLOS operations – have taken place in segregated airspace. In Operation Zenith, the partners want to show true integration, not doing anything different or ‘special’ for the introduction of drone traffic in an otherwise sensitive area. This is why they have chosen a busy, international airport.

Featuring both cooperative and uncooperative traffic: the partners said they firmly believe that no UTM solution can be considered complete without due attention being given to the uncooperative airspace picture. That’s why GuardianUTM O/S has real capabilities to integrate and connect with numerous detection systems to properly cater for the threat and challenges posed by uncooperative unmanned traffic.

Demonstrate integration with ATM: Both from a technology and an operational procedures perspective, drones have immense potential to transform lives and revolutionise businesses, but there are many issues blocking their routine and common use – particularly beyond visual line of sight and fully-automated flights.

A key reason for this is ‘separation’: the ability to ensure that a drone doesn’t cause any harm to other air traffic, especially manned aviation. Although various solutions have been proposed, these are often restricted to sensors on the drone or require participation from multiple manufacturers to adopt a common system of hardware which does not scale well or offer much room for innovation.

The Operation Zenith partners say many have proposed UTM solutions as the answer, but typically such proposed implementations are deliberately incomplete, avoiding tackling the actual blocking issues by focusing instead on ‘walled garden’ scenarios involving an entire vertical stack of technology.

Through using various operational scenarios, Operation Zenith aims to showcase:

  • Automatic validation of key datasets, such as education/competency certificates/licences, insurance policies and permission limitations.
  • Tracking of the drones and use of data for separation and telemetry for deconfliction.
  • Data capture and analysis in support of post-event analysis, e.g. enforcement action or safety intelligence.
  • Privacy controls and information access requirements for operators, oversight authorities and the general public.

Operation Zenith’s objectives are to demonstrate:

  • A representative mixed manned and unmanned air traffic environment.
  • UTM/ATM interoperability using existing ATM infrastructure and ATC procedures.
  • The information flow to and from a UTM system.
  • A safeguarding solution for an airport.
  • Strategic separation “plan to avoid” activity based on filed flight plans.
  • Drone position information to other airspace users, improving situational awareness.
  • Safety intervention activities, utilizing real-time drone telemetry and flight paths, including dynamic setting/adjustment of airspace zones and flight plans