Human operators in traditional air traffic management (ATM) are already facing high workloads and a deluge of data from different information systems, flight planning, radar and weather. 

The current approach isn’t scalable in ways that can deliver the hybrid airspace: the combination of crewed and uncrewed aircraft delivering a host of new services and the huge complexity that will bring both for localised urban areas and the global air traffic system as a whole.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation is committed to establishing new safety standards for uncrewed traffic. Communications that can lead to seamless integration is already being explored by NASA and the FAA and SESAR and Eurocontrol, with projects researching Concept of Operations (CONoPS), new technologies and case studies.

But ATM is increasingly seen as standing in the way of a new age of commercial opportunities: urban air taxis, cargo and delivery services, security operations, healthcare support and environmental monitoring. According to a PWC report in 2021, the UK is sitting on £32 billion of potential growth in the UK economy via the drones and uncrewed aircraft market by 2030.

To access the huge potential benefits of a new kind of airspace there has to be more automation and autonomy — but that can only happen with watertight systems and shared sense of trust. 

We only have one way forward when it comes to delivering the transformation needed, and that is cross-sector collaboration. A common vision and communications are needed between the Uncrewed Traffic Management (UTM) service and digital infrastructure providers, Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle operators, physical infrastructure providers, ATM service providers, regulators, local and regional authorities, and all the stakeholders that might have some point of interaction with this new aviation ecosystem. And that means ATM securely opening itself up to the Internet.

Concerns over security mean the aviation industry has been ‘hermetically sealed’ from the Internet and kept to its own — outdated and sometimes unreliable — information systems. A Cranfield study has estimated that 60 percent of flight delays (that aren’t weather-related) are due to failures in handling data. Digital aviation innovators, the start-ups using 4G and 5G connectivity, have been held back from having an impact.

Obviously, data being shared across a hybrid airspace needs to be consistently accountable and explainable, every movement and decision being explicit and trustworthy. Every anomaly has to be clear and traceable. At this stage, however, there aren’t clear guidelines on acceptable levels of performance for increasingly automated and autonomous systems.

The answer is going to be in the use of Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) — similar to the blockchain technology — which can be used to ensure there is secure registration and identification of the different users in the airspace, improving safety and cybersecurity and interoperability between the stakeholders involved. Using simple definitions, and open source code this base infrastructure can be used to underpin the future filing of flight plans, the capture and exchange of live routing data, and ensure the right data is made available to the right stakeholders at the right time, safely, securely and transparently. In this way, a DLT allows thousands of independent computers to share oversight of the history of data (who did what and when).

The system includes ‘smart contracts’, controls over user actions backed up by coded security. Artificial Intelligence will enhance cybersecurity measures for the DLTs, allowing for constant real-time data collection, processing and authorisation during operations. AI algorithms can be trained using historical data to recognise ‘expected’ UTM message content and the ‘expected’ behaviours of the parties involved, and so detect deviations that may signal misbehaviour on a DLT system. Suspected malign messages are removed or marked-up. 

A new report outlining the tech involved also proposes a new governance framework that sets a series of rules for those stakeholders participating in a distributing ledger, so that they can provide and receive data and services in a trustworthy environment. It highlights the need for modernisation of ATM in order to allow for the interoperability between UTM and ATM: making ATM and UTM information accessible to all relevant stakeholders.

Opening up the hybrid airspace is achievable in the near future. Work is underway between a consortium of partners including Cranfield, Heathrow Airport, IAG, NATS, SITA and Oxford University as well as UK-based startups and SMEs. It’s expected that the framework of working tech will be in place by 2024. All that’s needed is the shared will and coming together of the main players in the aviation sector to seize the opportunity that’s being presented.

Dimitrios Panagiotakopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Uncrewed Aircraft systems Traffic Management (UTM). Centre for Autonomous and Cyberphysical Systems, Cranfield University. A report, ‘The development of an UTM system using cross-cutting technologies: Distributed ledgers and artificial intelligence’ can be downloaded here