Manning Up: How European authorities are forging ahead with efforts to make sure they can cope as more unmanned aircraft arrive in European skies

rpas3-300x245ATM examines how European authorities are forging ahead with efforts to make sure they can cope as more unmanned aircraft arrive in its skies

Unmanned aircraft, or Remotely-Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), are in the spotlight, as operators and companies explore the potential of the fast-developing technologies that make such platforms possible. So European authorities are forging ahead with efforts to make sure they can cope as more RPAS arrive in European skies.

The SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) Joint Undertaking (JU) is the Agency that is in charge of researching the modernisation of Europe’s air traffic system and, in 2012, the agency was instrumental in the development of the Strategic Research Plan of the European Commission RPAS Integration Roadmap: ‘Roadmap for the integration of civil RPAS into the European Aviation System’ (June 2013).

In 2013, SESAR JU issued a call for proposals for RPAS Demonstration Projects, and selected nine, from 22 candidates. The aim was to provide operational and technical data on integrating RPAS into Europe’s skies, concentrating on assessing the current state of the art.

Now, the SESAR JU will take the next step in plans to assess the behaviour of RPAS, and how they can fit in with conventionally piloted aircraft, by launching a call to move forward to a SESAR RPAS Definition Phase.

The SESAR RPAS Definition Phase aims to examine several different areas: regulation and business framework issues; customers; an identification and evaluation of the operational changes in air traffic management needed to integrate RPAS; and devising the validation needs of enabling systems. Once the Definition Phase is complete, the SESAR JU will be better placed to propose a clear RPAS integration programme.

Challenges

RPAS operating over Europe pose particular challenges not always seen elsewhere, according to Denis Koehl, senior adviser to the executive director at SESAR JU, who is in charge of SESAR RPAS activities. “In the United States and some other countries the military have enough space to handle these aircraft without any clear need to integrate them into the civilian aviation system,” he says. However, where integration is required, additional work is required.

While RPAS are likely to account for only a tiny percentage of flights for the foreseeable future, their different performance profiles mean that integrating them properly into the airspace system is key to avoid increased work for controllers and to maintain safety.

Skies are getting busier and authorities are determined to make sure that controllers don’t have to make any allowances for RPAS – although their flight profiles might be very different to those of airliners, the aim is for them to be just another blip on controllers’ screens to be dealt with like piloted aircraft. For this to happen, complex assessment and analysis in advance is key.

Knitting together the regulatory frameworks in different countries that are at different stages of development is one key challenge, says Michael Standar, chief strategies and international relations at SESAR JU: “There are already cases out there where you have regulatory frameworks in place, for example UK, Sweden, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. One of the problems is harmonising all these regulatory frameworks into a European regulatory framework and then understanding the various R&D issues that need to be looked at, such as communications, sense and avoid for instance.”

Koehl adds that the move to a Definition Phase would entail the engagement of a lot more partners, providing more input on how RPAS operate and what that means for air traffic management in the region – and crucially for the development of RPAS themselves.

“The elements for bringing those new customers in the game have been there all along,” says Standar. “I think the very fact that the Definition Phase will start means that players, whether they are providers of services or manufacturers of assets, will get a clearer picture of where they might fit in to the whole game. The more clarity you give to the game the better the business cases will be and the situation where they might actually exist will become apparent.”

Business Case

SESAR air traffic management expert Robin Garrity says: “It’s critical that the business case is recognised as one of the principal movers for this – not just the business case of the manufacturers, but also the business case of the people who are going to be using RPAS. There are companies out there that are beginning to recognise that unmanned platforms have the potential to give them a business advantage. You need to be aware of that bigger picture before RPAS can really become commercially successful.”

He adds: “RPAS have been around for a very long time but they have been very much in a developmental stage and there’s been so much disparate work around the world, with different approaches to solving the problem, that the whole domain was not really mature enough to be brought into a programme looking at modifying the whole future of ATM the way SESAR is doing”.

The European Commission RPAS Roadmap is an important baseline from which to commence harmonised European integration work. The SESAR JU is now building on the progress already achieved since the RPAS Roadmap was put in place.

“The main concern will be in defining and adjusting the gaps. The change will be progressive not revolutionary,” says Koehl. Garrity adds: “I think it’s important to recognise that we’re not talking about a parallel RPAS SESAR programme – integration is the key. What would be nice is a definition phase that enabled us to see what additional changes, if any, were needed to the concept for manned operations to enable 4D remotely piloted operations. We’re not talking about reinventing the wheel.”

Nevertheless, the kinds of operations RPAS will be used for means the approach to managing them will have to be different and SESAR has been quick to draw on the military’s greater expertise in the RPAS domain in its preparatory work. “The military community is important to us and has been since the start of SESAR Programme,” said Standar. “They’ve got most of the capabilities but those capabilities just need to be adapted to an environment where you have all sorts of operators”.

RPAS growth in the short-term is expected to come largely from low-altitude aircraft with profiles similar to those of military unmanned vehicles, or early civilian vehicles that are used for pipeline or power line surveillance, or to carry out building surveys in cities or to monitor forest fires, for example – none of which should normally require air traffic control.

Larger, fast-moving, higher-altitude RPAS are likely to follow at a later date and this is where SESAR and the RPAS Steering Group’s determination to involve the military aviation community and learn from its experience in planning and operating unmanned platforms should come into its own. “I can imagine in 15 years’ time we will have unmanned systems that can fly in the same way as normal aircraft in terms of speed and altitude,” says Koehl.

Those aircraft would of course need to be included in the air traffic control system, but SESAR is clear that these new entities would be entering a ready-made system, not having that system adapted for them. “It’s not for ATM to change for RPAS – the RPAS have to adapt to the ATM system,” says Standar. Garrity agrees: “It’s very important not to draw a distinction between manned and unmanned aviation”.

Communications

This applies to communications between pilots and controllers, as well as communications between remote pilots and their aircraft. The broader move towards digital communications between controllers and aircraft will help.

“When you’re talking about trajectory management and digital communications, they actually work very well in a remotely piloted environment. An air traffic controller, particularly in an environment that is set to get busier and busier, hasn’t got time to differentiate between the types of vehicle they’re talking to. The controller can’t have an unmanned communication system and a manned communication system. It’s got to be transparent,” says Garrity, adding: “This move towards digital communications is very good. The developments that are going on in the manned community actually help the unmanned community to work out how to apply such developments on their platforms and in their concept of operations in a way that will be very good for all.”

The arrival of RPAS vehicles in the system should not increase air traffic controller workloads per se, but will form part of a wider workload that itself is growing as Europe’s skies get busier. “In terms of workload, if the unmanned vehicle flew in exactly the same way as manned aircraft, in theory there should be no difference – it’s just another blip on a screen operating the same way,” says Garrity.

“But we know that one potential development with unmanned platforms is that they will be working under different performance regimes than the equivalent manned aircraft. They might be much slower, they might turn slower or climb slower. Whereas an airliner goes from A to B in as straight a line as possible, an unmanned platform may need to operate over a particular area providing surveillance in an area where lots of airliners may be flying.” Consequently, RPAS operations could have a disproportionate impact on the entire ATM system. “These are important elements we’re looking at because if we get this wrong the impact on the ATM network and controller workload has the potential to be significant,” says Garrity.

The Call for Tender for the SESAR RPAS Definition Phase – released in the first half of February – allows for two to three months to select a candidate, the Definition Phase should begin in April or May and the first part of the project should be finished by the first quarter of 2015.

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