Reality check: Unmanned Air Mobility and the challenging road ahead
We do not think any professional in the delivery drone space was under any illusions about the amount of work that needs to be done until drones can be fully integrated in uncontrolled airspaces above busy urban areas in developed cities.
It is evident in the sheer number of companies involved in the various projects, especially by the European Union’s Single European Sky’s Air Traffic Management Research wing (SESAR), but the journey will be long and arduous.
And Callum Holland should know.
After all, he is the Head of Flight Operations for Thales UK’s Operational Authorisation. Thales is part of a consortium for one of SESAR’s drone integration projects. Besides, Mr Holland has over fifteen years of experience within the unmanned aviation industry and has worked directly on several high-profile ventures in this space.
In the article below, Callum shares his views on delivery drones, urban air mobility and the challenges that autonomous aircraft has to overcome to gain the trust of aviation authorities as one of the regulars in the busy skies of the developed world.
You would be forgiven for believing the future of drone delivery is closer to full scale commercial realisation than it actually is.
Like any industry pushing the boundaries of technological innovation, the delivery drone space is full of amazing people, opportunities and capabilities.
However, it is also a breeding ground for misinformation and dream selling by those wishing to make fast cash from optimistic investors. One issue I see far too often is the façade of trials being sold as fully-scaled commercial solutions. Often conducted in tightly controlled environments with exceptional manpower requirements, trials can give an unrealistic picture as to the near-term potential of the technology. Let me be clear, trials are a really important piece of the puzzle in demonstrating the potential. I have been part of many myself, and the lessons have been invaluable in progressing our understanding, both for industry and regulators.
But contention comes when individuals and investors outside of the drone industry are exposed to the marketing content produced during these trials. Compound this with additional advertising of other products and services and a lay person would be well in their right to why their Saturday night takeaway is still being delivered by scooter.
So, despite all the highly edited, computer-generated marketing material being distributed, why are we some way off this future being a tangible reality?
Most people might be aware of some incredible examples of drone delivery services being operated today, with examples abound in African countries that include Rwanda, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi. But there is a significant distinction between repeatable delivery operations in developing nations – which a conducted most in remote rural locations, with very little additional air traffic and less complicated regulatory framework – and developed ones, which are exactly the opposite.
Offering a commercialised delivery service within a developed geography, with a high volume of other air traffic, and extensive legislation is another matter altogether. It is likely you have seen examples of drone delivery services being operated across the likes of the United Kingdom and America in recent years. These trials help us learn more about our future customers, the technological capabilities and communication links of the aircraft, and open dialogue with the regulators to drive regulation forward.
For the most part, these trials are carried out after restricting access to the airspace in which they are operating; with temporary bans to any other air traffic from entering the trial area. This works well in the short term, but it is not a scalable solution; we need to develop technologies and regulation that helps the integration of drones into uncontrolled air space, where they will be flying along with other air users.
Enabling the future of drone delivery still requires progress from a multitude of disciplines. Autonomous aircraft still need a pathway for safe, global integration into our existing airspace. Perhaps one of the most significant areas of interest, and investment, is in Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM). The challenge with UTM is the sheer scale of enabling technologies and regulatory developments required to make it work. Let us step away from the acronyms and focus on what challenges we are trying to address with UTM.
Ever since the Chicago Convention of 1944, there has been a global effort in ensuring manned aviation has a safe and efficient method of integration into the skies. To do this, we have developed and refined rules for Air Traffic Management. Ground-based computer systems assist highly skilled Air Traffic Controllers who communicate strict instructions to pilots. A clearly defined set of regulations help harmonise the safe, international movement of aircraft.
Additionally, we see increasingly sophisticated technologies to help aid in situational awareness for those who control and fly in our skies. With autonomous air traffic, such communications and instructions will be taking place without human input. An additional and often overlooked complexity is that the chosen system also needs to permit cooperation with manned aircraft, working alongside existing Air Traffic Management capability.
Developments on airspace integration, for the most part, have focused on enabling technologies. We understand that in the future of Advanced Air Mobility, aircraft require a method of efficient, secure communication. Not only between aircraft and ground control, but from one aircraft to another, including manned aircraft, which goes far beyond being able to display an aircraft’s position in real-time to the relevant stakeholders viewing a screen. This requirement is referred to as Electronic Conspicuity.
EC is a term used to encompass all the technologies required to provide complete, digital situational awareness of both manned, and unmanned aircraft for a given block of airspace. EC development is in its infancy and will likely take several years to reach a level of maturity in which it can be widely adopted as a standard. It will become one of the underpinning pieces of technology required for manned and unmanned airspace integration to be successful, and by association, drone delivery. Furthermore, we must not overlook the significant additional workload placed on the authorities who will help shape and regulate this new technology. Trials alone should not satisfactorily convince senior decision-makers that this piece of the puzzle is complete.
Interestingly, we are seeing the international authorities take differing positions on this subject. The United States Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and EU’s European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) are beginning to adopt specific remote identification standards that are not necessarily aligned with one another. For reference, Remote ID is a component of electronic conspicuity that increases accountability by removing anonymity in operations for authorities. The United Kingdom’s CAA has begun an innovative rebate scheme whereby both manned and unmanned air users can purchase a wide variety of EC modules that have different standards and/or protocols. What you can take from this is yet further evidence that, despite moving in the right direction – we are still some time away from the commercial realisation of a developed EC eco-system, which will be an enabling technology of integrated airspace management.
With EC providing enhanced situation awareness to promote deconfliction, amongst other services, there is a requirement for visual detect and avoid capability. Companies across the globe are currently developing visual sensors and intelligent algorithms to allow the unmanned aircraft of the future to ‘see’ .
An issue when flying within uncontrolled airspace is that you cannot guarantee with any degree of certainty who, or what else is in the air. Regulators could mandate the use of EC devices for all air users flying within uncontrolled airspace but what do you do when these units fail? With manned aviation pilots can ‘see and avoid’ and that is exactly what some of my industry colleagues are trying to enable unmanned aircraft to do. Visual detect-and-avoid technology is at an advanced stage of development, yet still needs more work to make it perfect. Namely, the development of national and/or international standards, quality control, and empirical data sets on its effectiveness of being able to identify objects both in the air and ground. Visual detect-and-avoid will likely become an underpinning piece of capability required for drone delivery services.
Airworthiness Standards and Certification
Commercial aviation is one of the safest methods of travel in the world today . This is not by coincidence or luck. Manned aviation has some of the most well defined, and stringent standards of any industry. Both in terms of human factors, and airworthiness. Focusing on airworthiness, which encompasses the special technical standards and minimum safety standards set by regulators, forms the backbone of commercial aviation safety today. It is the very reason a ninety-something-tonne Airbus A320, fully laden with highly combustible aviation gasoline can fly just a few thousand feet over London, versus the current inability of a seven-kilogram drone to fly a similar route.
The fact is, given the strict and developed standards, we can say with a very high degree of confidence the A320 is safe, and predictable in the air.
Although larger drones have been subject to similar, if not identical standards for many years, those weighing less than around 30kg have not had the same level of oversite. However, I will caveat that last sentence with an extraordinary example at the end of this section. We have begun to see a greater degree of regulatory interest in this domain as the requirement for it has grown. A recent development can be seen in EASA’s introduction of ‘Aircraft Classification Type’  requirements, adopted also by the United Kingdom’s CAA. This is one of the first instances a regulator has stipulated specific performance and safety characteristics of light drones for generalised operations. At the time of writing, we are still waiting for manufactures to manufacture new aircraft to these standards.
However, for the same level of relative confidence to be applied to small drones, there is further work to be done at an OEM and supplier level. Small autonomous aircraft need to be built to certain standards of airworthiness, set by regulators. These standards are only just being studied and it will be several years before we see a small drone with an airworthiness certification for long-range autonomous flight in non-segregated airspace. Much like the future of airspace management, this relies upon the inclination of different disciplines coming together to drive the overarching objective of AAM.
To emphasise the point, those focusing on primary flight control avionic systems, automated flight management systems, electric and conventional propulsion systems, visual and electronic detect and avoid integrations with the flight management system, must all develop in harmony.
To drive home the extent of the challenges which I have raised above: The United Kingdom’s Air Accident Investigation Branch has recently published its findings into an incident that occurred on the 4th of July 2019. A 95kg drone lost control, ascended into controlled airspace, and subsequently crashed 700m from its intended operating area and only 40m from occupied houses. This drone was being flown under an exemption granted by the CAA to the operator. The AAIB’s report found a complete lack of knowledge of any airworthiness standards and made a total of fifteen safety recommendations to both the CAA and the operator.
This is just one of many examples of how far away unmanned aviation is from reaching the safety standards of manned aviation. This section is not intended to suggest what we need to start doing, as I believe we are moving in the right direction, it is simply highlighting the immaturity of the industry’s position on the subject.
OEMs have made noble efforts in recent years in ensuring the security of the connection between aircraft, and ground station are resilient. However, you only need to search counter-drone technology to realise there is a great deal of work to be done. Many, if not all commercial drones available on the market today are susceptible to some form of electronic attack, from signal jamming, GNSS denial, through to complete takeover of command systems. Before we can see a more integrated network of autonomous drone operations spread throughout urban, and rural environments, the enabling technology needs more robust security precautions in place. This fits in with the need for wider airworthiness standards as resistance to a cyberattack is just one of many fundamental barriers to the true commercial realisation of Advanced Air Mobility, which includes drone delivery.
Development in this area is making good progress however, industry-wide accepted standards and certifications are yet to be developed.
Privacy Concerns and Societal Acceptance
We must not be so brash as to expect society to welcome the future of autonomous aviation with open arms. Not all challenges we face are technical and regulatory ones.
Indeed, ensuring we bring society on the journey with us is a responsibility we all must take on. Governments function on the premise of popular opinion and push key election promises during their time in office. Now, our industry is a large one, but public attitude will always be one of the most powerful driving forces in politics. If the popular opinion does not support the safe integration of autonomous aircraft into society, much of our efforts will be in vain. A common indiscretion we make is our fondness of acronyms and other complex language choices. This makes communication faster for those within the industry but could potentially alienate a wider audience.
The adage, if you cannot explain it simply, you do not understand it yourself, could be employed here. Industry colleagues at all levels and across all disciplines should make concerted efforts in taking that extra bit of time to consider our industry’s primary stakeholder, the public. We need to see public policy advocates and skilled stakeholder engagements teams utilised more within projects.
We still have not won the battle to secure the public trust and willingness to accept drones into their everyday.
Some might take this rather heavy piece to assume that I am a naysayer of the future of Advanced Air Mobility and drone delivery. This could not be more remote from the truth. I am so passionate about the potential benefits that drone technology could bring that I think it is time to hold accountable those within our industry who seek to make a quick buck by promising a pie in the sky to investors. This behaviour is harming the wider perception of the industry, as more and more promises are broken with the passage of time.
Proving a more constructive takeaway: I have witnessed too many brilliant thinkers within our industry imagine and create in isolation. I have been guilty of this myself, despite definitely not being brilliant. I am privileged enough that my career enables me to see the industry in a much wider context than most. I understand the importance, and sensitivities, of competition and competitive advantage across the business. However, I also understand that the market of autonomous aviation has not yet been created for business to prosper within. Enabling the future of autonomous aviation requires a global willingness to collaborate. Not only at a nation-state level, but as a business one too. The true commercialisation of autonomous aviation will come once we have overcome the existing challenges of today. We can prevail over these challenges more promptly if we work collaboratively, understanding that this will be the route to opening the market for us all to prosper within.
We must also be more honest with ourselves as an industry in terms of our progress. Let me be clear, I am not a cynic. The progress we have made over the last decade has been colossal. However, the future vision of automated aviation that I described at the beginning of this article is still some way away.
This is not an argument to hold back. Quite the opposite in fact; we must begin to manage the expectations of our current, and future stakeholders better. I believe there is an unfounded fear within technical innovation, that unless you promise tangible progress in the short term you will not receive backing towards your project. I want us to step away from this insular, instant gratification method of operating. The hurdles we have yet to overcome require a long-term vision, and equally, long-term commitment.
The future of Advanced Air Mobility promises to unlock untold benefits for wider society. We will see a faster, more efficient distribution of medicines to billions of the world’s inhabitants. It will help ease some of the burdens on conventional delivery methods, reducing our global carbon footprint and providing cleaner air for the inhabitants of our cities. It will open a brand-new economy, eventually supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs globally.
However, we must always maintain a realistic dialogue with our stakeholders. I hope that this article helps paint a more accurate picture as to the future of drone delivery.
Callum Holland also read International Politics at University and has a vested interest in helping shape public, and political opinion about our industry. Callum is the primary point of contact for SOARIZON, a digital SaaS solution which seeks to promote compliance and scalability to the drone operations of today. He has developed close working relationships with many of the world’s leading voices within this space. His background affords him the luxury of a varied, and detailed understanding of the industry, and the challenges it faces. His motivation comes from recognising the immeasurable impact drone technology can have on society both today, and in the future. His approach is pragmatic in an industry that often oversells the near-term potential.