Mark Watson’s first-hand experience of flying drones is reassuringly similar to that of many recreational drone operators. He has had one stuck in a tree and another drowned in a rock pool, so he understands the risks an operator faces. Professionally, he is also fully aware of the risks drones can pose to regular air traffic.

As Head of Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) Service Integration at NATS, Watson is the man in charge of bringing drones safely into the realm of air traffic management (ATM) in the UK. He is also helping to direct a group working on international standards in his role as a board member of the Global UTM Association (GUTMA).

“I was head of research and development at NATS before taking on my current role, so drones featured among the things we had to look at,” he remarks. “At first, we looked at the integration of large military platforms, but then we had to look at low-cost, low-altitude drones being used for commercial purposes, such as package delivery or agriculture, because of the rapid rise in their use. We had to look at how that economy could coexist with current ATM and how it would affect air traffic services. As that market matured, we established a full-time team at NATS.”

The work of that team is driven by the huge increase in drone use in recent years, which is set to accelerate further in the near future. A report by PwC, published in May 2018, suggests that by 2030, there could be 76,000 drones in UK skies, and that the impact of the drone economy on GDP could be as much as £42 billion – or around 2% – by then. More than a third of the drones in use could be used in public sector applications, including defence, education and health, though the private sector will also be a powerful engine of growth, with companies like Amazon looking to use drones for package delivery.

With that growing use, however, comes risk. In the UK in 2017, more than half of all airprox incidents were drone-related.

“Drone sightings and reports from pilots of drones in restricted airspace are significant, so the safety of manned airspace users is an issue,” says Watson. “Airports need to address that urgently, and NATS has put in significant effort to educate drone users to fly safely. It is so hard to detect the drone operator, so we often don’t know if the drone is being used commercially or recreationally. We have developed apps to help operators who are out in the field to remain safe by showing them airspace boundaries and where they cannot fly without permission.

“There was an incident in January this year when a police drone in Devon had registered an intent to fly on the NATS app, but then had an airprox incident with two military jets flying at low altitude because they could not see the drone-intent on their flight-planning system. It shows that there is an inherent risk with shared airspace,” he adds.

Tackle the technical challenge

As an air navigation service provider (ANSP), NATS has to develop a system that can allow users of low-altitude airspace to be aware of any activity that might pose a risk. Currently, NATS is working with UK-based drone traffic management solutions company Altitude Angel in a longterm partnership to develop unmanned traffic management solutions that can be integrated and interact with conventional air traffic control.

Drone flights need to be visible to all airspace users, so the partners are working to integrate drone flight and operational data with existing systems for the management of manned aviation. Combining those information streams will improve situational awareness for all legitimate airspace users and provide a firm basis on which air traffic controllers can engage with drone operators.

For instance, information in the ICAO flight plan format can be fed into the back end of Altitude Angel, which creates GeoJSON data – a popular open standard format used for representing simple geographical features. Flight plans submitted in GeoJSON can also be translated into the appropriate format for air traffic controllers.

“Because of the mix of manned and unmanned airspace users, we at NATS believe that the future of airspace management must integrate UTM and ATM,” explains Watson. “The airspace manager must manage all airspace users. A key aspect of that is the full electronic broadcast of position by all airspace users using electronic conspicuity devices.”

Similar projects are under way in Europe, Asia and the US. NASA’s Ames Research Center, for example, is building a platform to manage drones flying at low altitude, known as UAS Traffic Management, which is also based on the digital sharing of each user’s planned flight details.

The first phase, which was completed in 2015, involved field tests of how drones can be used in agriculture, firefighting and infrastructure monitoring, as well as testing technologies for enabling drones to fly safely, such as scheduling and geofencing. Phase two, completed in 2016, focused on monitoring drones flown in sparsely populated areas where they are out of sight of the operator, and involved the testing of technologies for on-the-fly adjustment of areas in which drones can be flown. This year, the work will focus on creating and testing technologies to keep drones safely spaced out and flying in their designated zones, while the next stage will take all of the project’s findings and explore how the UTM system can integrate drones into more populated urban areas.

“We have to compare what we are doing in the UK with what is being done elsewhere,” says Watson. “What has been done at NASA has helped to get everyone involved in developing a strategy for the future. We have looked at what is being done in the US and in Singapore, as well as looking at what companies like Amazon are doing. In the US, the low-altitude authorisation and notification capability (LAANC) allows connection to the FAA system for flight plan approval, and it was rolled out across the whole country in just two years, which is a really good first step.

“The current UK legislation is moving to drone registration, which needs a database that NATS can access with information on permissions, rights to fly and more. The industry needs standardisation for things such as detect and avoid systems, but it’s taking time to achieve that standardisation because of the immaturity of use cases. It is a chicken and egg situation because problems occur before the solution, and as the market matures, you begin to realise that your original thinking needs to evolve,” he adds.

Our aim is to provide a safe method of use among airspace standards. It’s not about controlling or restricting the use of drones, it’s about encouraging businesses using drones to grow in a way that is safe for all airspace users.

Global standards

NATS is focused on the needs of UK airspace users, though its work is informed by developments elsewhere. Equally important, however, is the global perspective, which Watson sees through his role in GUTMA.

Bringing together a global community of UTM stakeholders, GUTMA exists to foster the safe, secure and efficient integration of drones in national airspace systems, and its stated mission is to support and accelerate the transparent implementation of globally interoperable UTM systems. Its members range from software providers and manufacturers of unmanned aviation systems, to drone operators and ANSPs. Currently, it has 60 members, of which half are large companies and half are SMEs. It is the voice of the emerging drone industry in conversations with the broader aviation sector in the development of standards.

GUTMA has engaged with ICAO, Japan’s Civil Aviation Authority and the European Commission to represent the industry, and its members continue to refine a set of global, interoperable solutions by working on UTM architecture, flight declaration and flight logging protocols, as well as focusing on drone and user registration.

“GUTMA is an agency that works on international standards,” explains Watson. “There is a gap in the market in regard to the drone economy. From the start, many standards bodies looked at it from the same perspective as manned flight, but that does not take in the whole picture. A good analogy would be Kodak, which did not foresee the digital camera. So GUTMA is looking at what innovative companies are bringing to the drone market. Innovations are hard to predict.

“From the GUTMA perspective, the challenge is one of interoperability, so we are focusing on the development of standards to allow different products to work together, from flight logging to registration and much more. The reason for this is that, as the drone market emerges, airports are wary of investing in a system that might quickly become obsolete. Interoperability standards create competition in the market and give people the freedom to create their own apps.”

GUTMA has expressed its approval for the Global Aviation Trust Framework put out by ICAO, which aims to provide a high-level architecture to manage the growth in traditional aviation traffic and new entrants, ranging from small drones to rockets.

“Interoperability and standardisation are the key topics. GUTMA is there to support the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics and other certification agencies because there is no ‘one size fits all’ risk profile. Different use cases have different airborne and ground risks, so we are working with various companies to find a safe way in which to grow sustainable drone businesses,” says Watson.

The key message Watson has for any commercial or recreational drone users is that the work of NATS, GUTMA, the FAA or any other ANSP is not intended to stifle the drone economy, but quite the opposite. The aim is to give drone users a safe environment in which to flourish, not least because of the potential economic benefits that may accrue in the long term.

“Our aim is to provide a safe method of use among airspace standards,” he explains. “It’s not about controlling or restricting the use of drones, it’s about encouraging businesses using drones to grow in a way that is safe for all airspace users. We want to enable those industries to evolve in the short term by fully using the different tools we already have today. We are still learning about what the long-term future holds.

“As an ANSP, NATS must embrace the new drone economy,” Watson concludes. “GUTMA sees a clear economic value in it for the public and for industry. Reports from PwC and others have been valuable in showing the economic benefits of the drone industry, particularly for public benefit. We now have to look ahead at the personal air mobility market, which is evolving rapidly, but the first goal is to help create a sustainable drone economy, which requires global standards.”