December 8, 2020
The importance of continuing to invest in drone technology
The push for BVLOS flights in unsegregated airspace continues at unrelenting pace. Crucial to unlocking low-level airspace for drones is the continual advancement in detect-and-avoid (DAA) and unmanned traffic management (UTM) technologies. Skyports flight operations lead, Alastair Skitmore, examines the importance of continuing to invest in drone technology, as the industry strives to enable drones to fly BVLOS.
STAYING AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Growth within the drone industry has been on a sharp upward trajectory since the technology made the leap between the military and consumer markets. The rapid proliferation of drones in recent times has fuelled an extraordinary number of advancements across all areas of the industry. With that, new technologies are created and quickly out-paced by continual developments and improvements. Staying ahead of the curve is crucial in order to maximise the potential that drones have to offer.
Drones hold extraordinary potential for improving the world we live in. Ideally suited to ‘dull, dirty or dangerous’ tasks, the use-cases for drone technologies are vast in number. Think search and rescue in challenging conditions, powerline and utilities inspections over great distances or linking together remote communities through drone deliveries. To better utilise the outstanding potential that drones can offer, we need to enable them to fly beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS).
NAVIGATING THE REGULATORY ENVIRONMENT: THE PATH TO UNSEGREGATED BVLOS FLIGHTS
Currently, the greatest challenge to the drone industry is the successful navigation of the complex regulatory environment which governs it. Drone technology has far outpaced regulatory maturity in recent years, leading to a mis-match between the capabilities of drones, and what the regulations permit them to do.
At present, the industry is dominated by short-range flights, typically within ‘visual line of sight’ (VLOS) of the pilot. Remaining within VLOS allows the pilot to maintain situational awareness with the drone and its surrounding environment. Deconfliction with other air users is conducted through visual confirmation of the presence and trajectory of an incoming aircraft, whereby the pilot can assume manual control of the drone, trigger a loiter or a return-to-home manoeuvre. Once the drone leaves the pilot’s line of sight, safe deconfliction with other air users becomes impossible.
Replicating pilot situational awareness during BVLOS flights is an exceptional challenge. As such, BVLOS operations within UK airspace are currently facilitated by the creation of portions of segregated airspace, or ‘Temporary Danger Areas’, whereby the drone operator is allocated their own area in order to safely conduct BVLOS flights. Whilst effective at minimising the likelihood of interactions between drones and manned aircraft, such solutions can prove disruptive to other air users, and lack the scalability required to unlock the true potential of BVLOS drone operations. Hence, BVLOS operations in unsegregated airspace represents the current ‘gold standard’ within the industry. The route to unsegregated BVLOS flights is being paved through continual advancements in drone technologies. Namely, detect and avoid (DAA), and unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems.
DAA technology seeks to equip drones with a situational awareness capability similar to that of a pilot in the cockpit of a manned aircraft, allowing the drone to ‘see’ its operating environment, and respond to the presence of other aircraft. One such technology is the CASIA DAA system by Iris Automation. Imagery provided by a camera on the nose of the drone is analysed by computer-vision algorithms in real-time. Potential aircraft incursions are classified, an alert is given to the pilot-in-command, and if necessary, the drone autonomously deconflicts with the intruder aircraft in order to safely avoid a collision. The CASIA system has been successfully deployed on a number of projects worldwide, and has, to date, facilitated the allocation of 60 BVLOS waivers in the United States.
Alongside DAA technologies, advancements in UTM systems are a critical key enabler of safe BVLOS operations. In much the same way as manned aircraft are marshalled safely through our skies by air traffic controllers, UTM systems provide a means of managing low-altitude airspace for the safe and effective integration of drones into the existing airspace framework. Crucial to the UTM methodology is ensuring that drones are electronically ‘conspicuous’ to other air users. Increasingly, drones are being equipped with ‘ADS-B Out’ capabilities, commonly found on manned aircraft, in which the position, altitude and velocity of the drone is broadcast to other air users in the area, allowing for tactical deconfliction.
In recognition of the importance of achieving BVLOS operations in unsegregated airspace, Skyports is working closely with DAA provider Iris Automation, and the UK CAA in their Regulatory Sandbox programme that aims to align drone services operators and regulators on a methodology for approving BVLOS operations in non-segregated airspace.
INVESTING IN THE FLEET TO DELIVER ACROSS A VARIETY OF OPERATIONAL ENVIRONMENTS
Operating at the cutting edge of the drone industry requires a fleet of modern, up-to-date aircraft and supporting equipment. The speed at which advancements in drone vehicle technologies occur requires operators to constantly remain well appraised of new entries to the marketplace. While improvements in the physical capabilities of drones are ever-evolving, so too are advancements in communications links, sensor technologies and safety features. Operator-manufacturer partnerships are key to ensure that new vehicles meet the strict demands of the industry. In line with industry ambitions to unlock BVLOS operations in unsegregated airspace, Skyports works closely with its vehicle manufacturers to perform custom sensor integrations in order to demonstrate DAA and UTM capability to regulators.
Much as traditional airlines require a diverse fleet of aircraft to serve different routes and destinations, drone services providers must assess whether one type of drone can fulfil the varying roles it is required to. Skyports operates a mixed-fleet of VTOL fixed-wing and multirotor delivery drones, in order to meet the demands of both rural and urban operating environments. Skyports continues to invest heavily to ensure the fleet remains up-to-date with the latest in sensor and vehicle technologies on the path to unsegregated BVLOS operations.
MAINTAINING SAFETY AT THE CUTTING-EDGE OF THE DRONE INDUSTRY
Pushing the boundaries of the drone industry is not without inherent risk. Safety is at the heart of everything Skyports do. It would, therefore, be imprudent to conclude this piece without acknowledging the significant improvements in safety that come part-and-parcel with continuing to invest in drone technologies. Increased vehicle reliability, more robust safety and failsafe features, and improved situational awareness and deconfliction capabilities are just some of the benefits to be gained from continual investment in emergent drone technologies.
Skyports will soon embark on its next project, BVLOS medical deliveries for the NHS in the Argyll and Bute region.