The development of UAS Traffic Management (UTM) systems is a big topic in the drone industry as whole. It’s a topic we’ve explored in terms of how that kind of system would enable beyond visual line of sight operation as well as what this system could do to help define this entire era in drone history. Suffice to say, a UTM system could change the way everyone thinks of what it means to operate a drone.
The work that NASA has been doing in the United States in order to create this system has been fairly well covered, but in anticipation of Commercial UAV Expo Europe, I wanted to get a sense of how this topic was being looked at in that area of the world. The Global UTM Association is focused on far more than creating a UTM architecture for Europe alone though. They’re connecting with stakeholders on every side of the industry across the world to safely, securely and efficiently integrate UAVs into national airspace systems regardless of where those operators reside and where those flights take place.
To get a better sense of how the organization is approaching this topic, I connected with Benoit Curdy, Secretary General at Global UTM Association. Benoit has helped define the goals and initiatives for the nonprofit based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and he’s been actively involved in countless conversations with the Association’s 50+ members across 15 different countries with regulators and stakeholders worldwide. We discussed how he defines a UTM system, how this development will impact commercial markets, the organization’s three main goals for this year and plenty more.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what got you interested in drone technology? How did you get involved with the Global UTM Association?
Benoit Curdy: When I moved back to Switzerland from Ireland after working for Google and starting my own IT company, I discovered the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Robotics. They were doing some amazing work with drones. I got interested and it became clear that the commercial market was extending and the technical competencies were there, so I got together with Simon Johnson to have a little European event in Lausanne that was focused on commercial drones. There were around 200 participants, and we started a conversation with those people that continued after the event, which centered around what the next big thing in this space was going to be. We wanted to find out what we needed to move forward. The topic of traffic management was on everyone’s minds.
The year after, we decided to have a smaller event in Geneva to discuss that very topic just with a few people who were already involved. Everyone agreed that it was very important, and NASA was already leading the way, but we needed something global. We couldn’t find someone who was leading that from the industry perspective. So immediately after the conference, we decided to launch the Global UTM Association.
It’s grown really fast since then, as we’re around 50 members in 15 countries with very close ties to NASA UTM and SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research). There was really a need for that single voice of the industry regarding UTM.
How do you describe the system you’re looking to create to professionals or even to people that aren’t overly familiar with the technology? Do you think of or describe a UTM system as “air traffic control for drones”?
That’s one of our favorite questions, because a UTM system is really not like air traffic control for drones, for many reasons.
The first thing is that with a UTM, there are no humans in the loop. It’s a fully automated system. When people think of air traffic control, you always think of that person in the tower, and they’re talking with the pilots of the manned aircraft. That’s not what happens with a UTM.
It’s also different in scale. Air traffic control deals with tens of thousands of aircraft. With a UTM, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of drones. There are also major differences in terms of safety and security, because airplanes can never crash. On the other hand, there are plenty of circumstances where crashing a drone isn’t that bad, as long as they don’t hurt anything or anyone on the ground.
A UTM really isn’t a different way of air traffic control. However, the goal is to integrate drones with manned aviation in the sky, so in that sense a UTM can be part of an air traffic control system. Thinking of it that way allows you to see a full vision of what happens in the air.
How will the development of a UTM architecture impact the growth and development of drone technology itself? Will it open up more opportunities related to how drones can be used?
Some of the developers aren’t really paying attention to what’s happening with UTM, because they’re focused on bottom line goals and objectives in the short-term. A lot of drone companies are really focusing on autonomous systems, detect and avoid capabilities, and those are things that will be useful independently of UTM.
The goal of a UTM is to provide safety and security for drone operations via this autonomous infrastructure, but beyond that, the system is designed to open up beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. That will be the next huge wave for the industry and open up brand new markets.
Is the development of those new markets contingent on the technical capabilities of this UTM infrastructure?
Public acceptance is a critical issue, and that goes beyond the technical details.
Once we know what’s happening in the sky, people will be much more open to drones. Our initiatives are centered on describing the overall architecture, which involves the technical people, but we also have the registration identification piece that is coming up. One of the goals of that is providing the ability to involve the police when required and even to give anyone the ability to find out what the drones that are flying around them are actually doing.
Can you talk a little bit about the need to facilitate partnerships between manned and unmanned users of the airspace? Why is that of such critical importance?
Some think UTM and ATM (air traffic management) are going to work together very closely, but at the first stage, we need to keep them separate. As more drones begin to fly that cooperation will become very important, but we need to figure out how these systems can best function separately before talking about how they can work together.
I find it interesting, because on the drone side of this, we’re the newcomers. Because of that, we can adapt to whatever will work best, but because the manned aviation infrastructure has been in place and has been working for so long, it’s a little different. That presents the opportunity for cooperation, and we’ll eventually see that realized, even though it hasn’t happened yet. It’s a real opportunity to develop common standards when that happens.
That is interesting to think about, since this UTM can be built and configured to work in whatever manner is most effective, but that approach won’t work in the same way from the ATM side of things.
Yes, and really that brings up the question of how far we can go with this UTM system. Is this for urban environments? Is it for agriculture? Or is it for everything and everywhere? Obviously, the economic value will be a deciding factor, so we really need to understand the business model, and right now I think that’s one of the weakest points.
We can’t ask telecommunication companies to change their cell towers everywhere in Europe, the U.S., or in Japan without a clear understanding of what they’re getting from it. It’s the same reason we can’t compel them to be involved with funding it. One way or the other, we need to have a better understanding of the scope.
We can’t have a system where the drone operates in a UTM but then leaves it to fly into a space without UTM. You need to have continuous spaces. You could then go from one UTM service provider to another, but you need to avoid holes in the system.
Some ANSP’s (Air Navigation Service Provider) say that they will mostly run the core service at a national level, while others only want to provide data and have private entities handle those details. You can expect different countries to have different models.
Along those lines, one of the goals of the Global UTM Association is to identify actions that need to be taken to safely, securely and efficiently integrate UAS into national airspace systems. Are those actions specifically related to regulation?
Almost all regulators have the same concerns. The way we see our role is to help implement regulation. Our role isn’t to tell regulators what to do, but they tend to come to us to tell us what they’d like to do and to see what’s possible.
One example of an area where we want to take action relates to registration. It’s not likely that we’ll be able to get every country in the world to use the exact same registration system, but if we can get the fundamentals right, and they’re accepted, then we can give operators the ability to fly everywhere. That will work even if they have to adjust things according to what country they’re in, similar to how we currently deal with international cell phone roaming charges.
Ultimately, will an effective UTM architecture need to transcend borders and country-specific regulation?
The way we describe UTM is as a “system of systems”. So it’s a platform where you have different services available. We want to make it so that every agency will be able to identify 3-4 services that can be run by the national authorities themselves if they so choose. Others might want to make those services private, while various other services will become available that can be utilized as needed. However all of that works, if we have interoperability between the services, we don’t really care how each country handles the details. That’s the trick, because you need to set up the architecture which they can interact with however they want.
It’s the best solution, but it needs to be implemented at the outset.
You already mentioned how you’re working and coordinating with NASA, so maybe you could provide a few details around how you’re working with organizations across the world on the development of this system?
We wouldn’t even be talking if not for the work of PK (Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project). He’s been instrumental in getting this system going, and we originally came together in Geneva because we had read what NASA was doing. Everyone saw what was happening in the U.S., but that got them asking about what we could do in other areas of the world.
We work closely with NASA, SESAR, but also with regulatory bodies like the FAA, EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency), and JCAB (Japan Civil Aviation Bureau). We always look to partner with the R&D agencies and regulatory bodies in each region.
What’s the next critical milestone for the Global UTM Association in the development of this UTM architecture?
We have three main goals for this year.
The first one is to publish the overall architecture document so that everyone can agree on the language and the building blocks. The second is to start issuing data exchange protocols, and we have a protocol coming out around flight declaration, for example. The third one is very important, as it’s the registration identification task force that we’re launching, which is going to try and summarize all the national requirements that have already been established as well as all the technical solutions that are existing, and try to make sense of all of them. In every roadmap, registration identification is the first step, so it’s going to be big.
What kind of feedback and interaction are you looking for from the drone community as a whole?
We’re always interested in how people are using drones. What kind of operations do they want to achieve? It’s very important that we have that link with people working on the ground. We want to pave the way for future operations, not by inventing solutions, but by solving problems. So we’re always looking for stories and feedback around how people are and want to be using drones.