Collin Arocho
11 September

With swarms of drones now filling the sky, air traffic safety is identified as a primary challenge. In a joint European effort to address these concerns, NLR is ushering a public-private collaboration for the implementation of new regulations.

The use of drones has skyrocketed in popularity. The estimated global market potential for commercial drones is over 100 billion euros, which means – drones are here to stay. But, with a furious increase in the number of drones in the sky, what are the implications for airspace safety? As part of a joint European project, the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Center, NLR, is bringing the Dutch public and private sectors together in a quest to implement Europe’s vision for the safe, secure and efficient management of drone traffic, known simply as U-space.

The Podium project is a European collaboration between four countries with five operational sites: Odense in Denmark, Bretigny and Toulouse in France and finally, Marknesse and Groningen in the Netherlands. These partner locations have been tasked with demonstrating several U-space procedures and services with currently available technologies. Each site, with its area of focus, was then asked to gather information and lessons learned through practical experience. This evidence will be used to provide data-driven conclusions on topics such as flight efficiency, security, human performance metrics, and most importantly, safety. Once agreed upon, this data will be utilized to make recommendations to the European Commission for the future deployment of new regulations, guidelines and standards.

Credit: NLR

Testing

Under the coordination of NLR, the Dutch scope of the Podium project focuses on how U-space is able to cope with unexpected situations. For this assignment, the Netherlands developed two test scenarios. The first test was conducted at the Netherlands RPAS test center in Marknesse. RPAS, which stands for remotely piloted aircraft system, is the technical terminology for a drone. This scenario looked at the issue of traffic management. Similar to manned aircraft flight plans, drone operators can register to claim a piece of airspace for their operation. In this first simulation, two drone operators claimed adjacent and non-conflicting airspace – no problem. The test came when, suddenly, a high-priority drone needed to enter the claimed airspace. In this case, a drone carrying an AED was dispatched for an ‘emergency’ and would need to cross both claimed areas.

“We wanted to see how the current technology of U-space could cope with such unexpected scenarios. How is it all coordinated? How is the high priority flight initiated and how is this notified to other operators? Essentially, how can it safely perform its flight?” explains NLR project leader Joost Vreeken.

The second demonstration scenario was tested at Groningen Airport Eelde in civil controlled airspace. There, they had a drone operating beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). In the mission, the drone would need to deviate from the registered flight plan. Either initiated by the drone operator – in one run – or initiated by air traffic control (ATC) – in another. The first exercise was designed for the drone to fly along the runway, for about one kilometer, to a remote landing area. During this process, however, suddenly the landing zone became unavailable, triggering the unexpected situation. This meant that a new flight plan needed to be put in place.

In the second exercise of the same scenario, the drone was sent to do some BVLOS circuit training, with the intention to perform some touch and goes (landing and taking off again without coming to a full stop) on the runway. At a given moment, ATC was instructed to announce that the runway had become unavailable, again triggering the unexpected situation. Again, in this run, the crew needed to deviate from the planned flight and come up with an alternative solution.

Vreeken: “In these exercises, we were again looking at how the U-space system could cope. We were looking at the communication and interaction between the pilot and ATC. What were the changes in their respective workloads and what steps had to be taken to handle the sudden need for a deviated flight plan? This was our main contribution to Podium.”

Public-private

There can often be a natural tension between public and private initiatives. Private companies are known to push the leading edge of technology and innovation with ideas for improvements to progress and get results. For them, the focus is on fast delivery and time to market. Somewhat contrarily, however, is the public side, which maintains a focus on thoroughness, testing and safety. While these approaches may seem opposing to one another, this partnership is a crucial factor in the development of U-space and the overall success of Podium’s umbrella initiative, called Sesar.

In an endeavor such as this, collaboration and cooperation are key. For the testing missions in the Netherlands, the list of participants ranges from independent administrative bodies like the LVNL (Dutch air traffic control organization), to large corporations like Orange Telecommunications and Airbus, among others, as well as a whole host of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that were subcontracted to take part in the research and testing phase of the Podium project.

Credit: NLR

Dutch SME contributors include drone manufacturers E-productions and Acecore Technologies – the company that provided the AED drone for the testing scenario. RPAS Services, which acted as a drone operator in one of the operations, was the supplier of the uAvionix transponders that were integrated for use during demonstrations. For the Groningen test site, groups like Drone Hub Groningen facilitated the operations by coordinating with the airport manager and the other local air operators.

While these companies handled most of the technological and logistical aspects of the program, NLR has been working directly with the Dutch government to address needs on the regulatory side and to obtain waivers. In fact, NLR has already received several waivers and have amended Dutch airspace regulations. For example, to perform these tests, a waiver had to be obtained for BVLOS drone flights, as these aren’t allowed in the Netherlands. Additionally, NLR lobbied to increase the drone altitude restriction of 40-45 meters because BVLOS flights need to fly higher in order to safely communicate via radio and to allow for sufficient recovery time in the case of an unexpected emergency. For an SME, this is an extremely fast-tracked process to obtain waivers and get necessary regulatory changes. Without the cooperation of regulators and the help from institutions like NLR, this definitely wouldn’t have been the case.

According to Vreeken, this sort of all-hands-on approach has proven to be one of the greatest points of strength for this project. “These SMEs brought expertise and knowledge of technical specifications and logistical support. With their involvement and coordination, it took a lot of the logistics out of our hands so we could focus on the technology, waivers and the operation itself.” He goes on to say, “I think what we’ve seen here is that both sides have pushed each other to achieve results that are thorough, safe and still very timely.”

Credit: NLR

Next steps

With all the testing now finished and the deadline for the final report approaching, each of the partners is busy working on the site demonstration reports. These reports include all the lessons learned, as well as information about the necessary deviations that had to be made from the original plan of operations. There will be four summaries (both Netherlands testing sites combine into one), all using a similar template in order to compare the findings from each location. The data will then be fused into one overall report, which is slated to be presented on 17 October at a Eurocontrol workshop held in Brussels. Afterward, the information will be discussed with the European stakeholders – governments, local parties and those with an interest in U-space.

“The value of this is that it is all based on practical experience and is backed up by data – as opposed to simply, ‘we think’. That’s one of the main values,” says Vreeken, continuing, “Additionally, it’s derived from a project with well-respected project partners, so it’s taken very seriously. Though the European Commission has launched more than a dozen U-space demonstrators throughout Europe, all the projects are well connected with a very direct link and an open line of communication between them, Sesar and the Commission.”

As for the implementation of the findings, the Commission has published a roadmap for the progressive deployment of U-space through four blocks: foundation services (U1), initial services (U2), advanced services (U3) and full services (U4). The program had to be broken up into groups because the final parts of the project still require some developments in technology. However, the first of these blocks – U1, U2 and some of U3 – are slated to be introduced next year with the aim of validating the readiness of the air traffic control for drones. This also coincides with a mandate from June of this year, that requires drones to be equipped with some form of e-identification, which comes into effect in June of 2020.