Can drones and commercial aircraft safely share airspace?
Eyes on the sky: Can drones and commercial aircraft safely share airspace?

Can drones and commercial aircraft safely share airspace?

In a follow-up to last week’s interview with Professor Antonios Tsourdos from Cranfield University’s new DARTeC research centre, Internet of Business asks the professor about the future of drones in UK airspace.

Internet of Business (IoB): Can drones be integrated into civilian airspace and if so what is needed to make this happen? What would an integrated system for aircraft and drones look like?

Antonios Tsourdos of Cranfield University's DARTeC
Antonios Tsourdos of Cranfield University’s DARTeC

Professor Antonios Tsourdos (AT): Our Air Traffic Control (ATC) systems run on the basis of principles that are now 60 years old. It’s partly a result of this context that UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] are perceived as an unmanageable threat to safety. Yes, safety must come first, but airspace management must also evolve in line with the needs of societies and economies. If the potential of UAVs and related innovations as a platform for economic development aren’t already in the minds of government policy-makers, they soon will be.

A major research project AIRSTART (Accelerated Integration of Reliable Small UAV systems Through Applied Research & Testing), funded by Innovate UK via the Aerospace Technology Institute is due to run until the end of this year. The collaborative project is being led by Airbus Group Innovations, working with a range of partners and stakeholders (including the Civil Aviation Authority, NATS and UAV trade association ARPAS-UK); research institutes such as Cranfield University and the University of Southampton; small and medium-sized enterprises including advanced rotary engine manufacturer Rotron; and end users for the technology, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI), for search operations, and Western Power Distribution, for inspection of power lines.

There are four pillars to the AIRSTART research: detection and avoidance of air traffic to improve safety and enable unmanned aerial systems (UAS) operations in crowded or regulated airspace; smart perception to enable UAS around ground-based objects and infrastructure; secure and robust communications using lasers to provide high-speed data and situational awareness, as well as pinpointing the vehicle’s exact location in-flight; and, developing high-efficiency engines for UAS operations to extend flight durations and payload, while decreasing costs and increasing productivity.

Read more: UK students develop drone traffic management system

Airside functions

IoB: Are you thinking about systems that include drones as performing airside functions such as carrying goods around – or other tasks?

AT: Autonomous vehicles have an important to role to play in on-ground activities. Modern aircraft are expensive and sophisticated pieces of kit, and on the runways they are exposed to a flurry of work by staff, under pressure and working at speed – bringing dangers for people and aircraft. Autonomous systems for baggage loading, refuelling, monitoring and providing maintenance, each of them sharing data, can make on-ground services more efficient, reliable and safer.

IoB: What would be required on the part of a private drone owner to make this system work?

AT: Integrating UAVs into airspace will need to be based around the new national licensing scheme from drones weighing over 250 grams, backed up by formal legislation and tough penalties for unlicensed and irresponsible activity, with every UAV needing to work above a set height or outside of particular limited areas, registered on a national database.

UAVs will be trackable at all times, with the potential to be made inoperable if regulations aren’t respected. The range of practical uses for UAVs, especially as they become more accepted as part of everyday operations and services, means they are also going to be attractive for criminal activity.

Police will need to play their part in ensuring there’s safe and responsible use of UAVs, just as they do with motor vehicles. Police guidelines on dealing with dangerous UAV use highlights the struggle with anticipating the impact of new technologies, recommending that rather than attempting to take over control of a rogue UAV, police officers should wait for its battery to run out. More officers in future will need to have a level of training in the safe operation of a UAV, to defuse any potential imminent dangers as quickly as possible and avoid any threats to public safety.

The technology already exists for police or other authorities to override the controls of UAVs posing a threat, and this kind of management control is likely to form an important foundation for an integrated manned and unmanned airspace.

For more insight into the world of connected aviation and the impact that IoT technologies will have on airlines and airports, readers may be interested in attending our Internet of Aviation event, to be held at London Heathrow on 7 & 8 November.