Let There Be Flight

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Fundamental changes to the airspace have always been controversial but those setting the rules must ensure fair, safe and efficient access for everyone. With airspace coming under increasing pressure, Air Traffic Management’s Aimée Turner examines how opinion is forming on this controversial issue

It’s like Airservices Australia’s chief executive Jason Harfield so aptly put it when he spoke at a recent Pacific region aviation summit – the biggest issue with drone implementation comes down to ‘who’s already using the airspace?’

Airservices, for one, says its mandate is clear: it must ensure safe and efficient use of the airspace for all users and must evolve the services it offers to the industry to keep up with emerging technologies and changing industry needs. “We need to make sure new airspace technologies such as drones are safely integrated into the overall air traffic management system,” says Michelle Bennetts, the provider’s executive general manager of customer service enhancement.

Its low level airspace management programme is focussing on the three key areas of airspace boundary integration, the sharing and flow of information between aircraft and airspace design and future route structures. “There’s no denying this implementation and integration will be a challenge,” Bennetts reckons, “but we are well positioned to act as honest broker between governments, stakeholders, communities and partners.”

The honest broker motif is being repeated across the aviation industry’s ANSP and regulatory community. Take the United Kingdom. In June, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) held a ‘Share The Air’ event where its chair Dame Deirdre Hutton outlined its thinking and emerging strategy.

The UK CAA’s main objective is to enhance airspace use for both existing and new users and that means increasing safety principally by mitigating collision risk and improving efficiency in the face of heavy demands on what already is a finite asset.

“Doing nothing is no longer an option,” she says. “Safety is paramount. Mid-air collisions cannot be allowed to grow as air traffic increases. It is becoming less and less tenable that in uncontrolled airspace, most people are relying on ‘See And Avoid’ especially when the statistics tell us that it is an imperfect system and actually does not work well enough. Looked at it dispassionately, is a 10-year average of two mid-air collisions averaging two fatalities acceptable?”


The frequency of near misses is weighing heavily on the British authority too. “Of all the air proxes in 2017, ‘See And Avoid’ only worked effectively in half the occurrences,” Hutton reported, adding that in almost two thirds of incidents, the aircraft concerned had incompatible or no collision avoidance systems in place.

In the UK’s view, ‘See And Avoid’ is no longer a means to support an ordered growth in air traffic. Neither is airspace segregation likely to be a sustainable basis for effective structural change. So how should UK airspace be characterised ideally? The CAA thinks it should be based on integration not segregation, with everything that moves across its skies instantly ‘electronically conspicuous’ by sending out a signal identifying itself.

Rather than initially mandating electronic conspicuity or ‘EC’ across all UK airspace, it is looking at targeted blocks of airspace where there are greater benefits and more demand to accommodate a variety of airspace users.

A call for evidence earlier this year demonstrated that while there is an appetite to engage with EC, this is qualified by a desire for any solution to be practical and deliver value to users. A flexible approach is also needed to meet the needs of particular categories of aviation.

At the June conference, the CAA’s Hutton said its mission is now to engage with stakeholders and that it will endeavour to make sure that any decisions on its part will be transparent, well-argued and understood especially if it means asking traditional airspace users to fly in different ways and have to invest in surveillance solutions such as ADS-B which looks to be the favoured technology.

On this, Andy Sage from the UK provider NATS which is having to manage a huge hike in airspace infringements said he saw the principal challenge being the ability to embrace the vast variety of users and operation types. “Simply asking everyone to fit with the same type of technology and pinging it out to everybody is probably not going to be the answer and therefore perhaps the traditional idea of what EC means may need to adapt as the CAA proceeds through its consultation,” he said.


Reaction at the June event from delegates who hailed from the many airspace user groups was cautious. Some argued that ADS-B cannot be the single answer; that an operator’s attitude toward risk should dictate investment decisions and that a whole range of transition phases would be required. One constant concern was over the cost of any eventual EC mandate.

Following the conference, Martin Robinson, Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association chief executive, told Air Traffic Management that essentially, the discussion revolves around far greater commercial use of all the airspace. “Uncontrolled Class G has no real services as there is no need to provide such to general aviation flying VFR therefore with the development of U-Space, we need to know what services may be provided and to whom? And who will pay for what? If integrating the users is the real goal then EC is not really the solution in the mid to long term which I why I believe we need to do more with pushing SWIM / 5G.”

Philip Whiteman, editor of Pilot magazine, also attended the conference after which he wrote an excoriating editorial column, bemoaning the financial impact of future mandates driven by the likes of Amazon and its fellow disruptors.

“Is it the CAA’s job simply to facilitate this without question?” he asked. “And while we’d all be happy with an EC device that at least guaranteed that any and all commercial UAVs would automatically get out of our way, why should we be shelling out for equipment primarily mandated to make corporate operations possible?”

And what about the airline pilot community? The European pilots’ professional organisation ECA recently published a position paper on very low-level airspace operations below 500ft. “The safe integration of UAS into the current environment may include constraints to UAS operations and additional risks to manned aviation airspace users,” it stated. “The collective aim should be to minimise these operational constraints and to remove the safety risks as far as possible, while maintaining or improving the current levels of safety and security in the skies over Europe.”

There are signs though that traditional airspace users will soon have to adapt to the operational needs of the upstart UAS industry. While European UTM service providers will likely have to set up systems to exchange drone traffic identification, tracking and flight authorisations as part of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the European Commission’s final proposals for a U-Space regulatory framework, as outlined in July, additional requirements could mean that manned flights entering in to restricted U-Space will soon have to inform the U-Space service provider of their intent.


There are also signs that those creating the infrastructure to handle wide scale drone traffic are attempting to match traditional manned safety culture. Altitude Angel, one of the leading UTM developers, has just launched the first ‘just culture’ incident reporting system. With no industry-wide function currently available for drone pilots and operators to report unplanned events, Altitude Angel reckons an opportunity is being missed to share knowledge and prevent them being repeated. The system effectively therefore emulates the approach already successfully established in manned aviation where mandatory and voluntary occurrence reporting are submitted as routine.

Philip Binks, head of air traffic management at Altitude Angel, says the wider drone industry is lagging behind manned aviation when it comes to reporting unplanned events and unusual episodes, but it doesn’t have to be so. “Safety will be key to ensuring the industry’s expansion,” he says, “so we should take the lessons learned in manned aviation and adopt ‘just culture’ reporting across UTM.”

In addition to such examples of airspace user modes in a state of flux, some experts believe that rulemakers themselves have to become much more agile.
Joe Taylor, a public sector strategist at KPMG writing in Transport Times, reckons emerging high-tech aviation solutions, including flying taxis and drone delivery services, will require fundamentally different airspace infrastructure and regulation than traditional rotary and fixed wing aircraft.

“Merging these disruptive concepts in existing airspace – infers an attempt to accommodate new ideas into infrastructure and frameworks that have changed little in the past 60 years. We need to recognise that traditional aircraft are as different to drones as an inter-city train line is to a metro system, and the supporting infrastructure as different as an overground railway is to an underground tube system.”

He says that segregating sections of airspace for new entrants and allowing new infrastructure to grow independently and organically, while replacing the word ‘integration’ for ‘interface’ would be far more likely to encourage what he terms ‘the second aviation revolution’.


Brent Skorup, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center of George Mason University, however cautions that exclusive aerial corridors, as opposed to shared corridors planned for today by some regulators, would allow competitive UTM systems – but with only basic interoperability requirements.

“Regulators are under immense pressure, inside and outside, to have a single UTM provider, or a few hand-picked vendors,” he says. He argues however that a single UTM system or a tightly-integrated system with a few private system operators would simply reproduce many of the problems with today’s air traffic management. “It is very hard to update information-rich systems, especially air traffic control systems, the delayed, over-budget NextGen modernisation shows.”

Since receiving feedback from the call for evidence and the conference, the UK CAA says it intends to facilitate a proof of concepts trial early next year.

Richard Moriarty, CAA chief executive, wrapped up the conference with a simple appeal. “It’s important to get this right. I hope than in five or ten years’ time we don’t stop and say, you know what? In 2019, the canaries were singing in the coal mine. We saw the airproxes go up, we saw the infringements go up and we were having all those talks about EC and airspace reform but we failed to grasp it. Imagine what that future will look like in five or ten years’ time if we fail to grasp it. In actual fact, what will happen is that we will all lose.”