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Is UTM at risk of technical fragmentation?

Drone operations are growing at an increasing rate and even if air taxis are not there yet, they will start in a foreseeable future. The number of start-up and more established companies offering Unmanned Traffic Management systems (UTM for short) is growing as well. The services they offer vary greatly and range from information to […]

Drone operations are growing at an increasing rate and even if air taxis are not there yet, they will start in a foreseeable future. The number of start-up and more established companies offering Unmanned Traffic Management systems (UTM for short) is growing as well. The services they offer vary greatly and range from information to pilots about no-fly zones to real-time tracking of drones and even collision avoidance. These companies evolve at a pace that is usual for technological firms and this is not exactly the same speed as what ANSPs or regulators are used to.

On one hand, standardization organisations like EUROCAE and overarching bodies like EUROCONTROL are working on the creation of technical and operational standards. On the other hand, some states changed the mandate of their ANSPs to task them with the implementation of UTM systems in an effort to support the rapid development of the drone economy. In its regulatory role, EASA fosters a multi-operator approach where each U-Space Services Provider (USSP) can provide services on a more or less regulated market place. Some services could be mandatory, others could be optional. Read FoxATM’s interview with Swiss U-Space Project Manager Lorenzo Murzilli to learn more about this.

How will this approach work in terms of interoperability and fragmentation? Taking a step back and looking at Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems implementation across the world, the level of fragmentation is quite high. Each country operates different technical systems and even if some alliances like COOPANS exist, the systems remain very specific and vary from country to country.

Will UTM be the same? How to ensure a seamless integration with ATM and seamless operations for the drone operators? Will operators have to register with and use various systems depending where they fly? The problem of drone flights will likely be different as the range is much smaller and local missions like photographic flights or inspection flights will not need to take place across borders. But with air taxis, this could change. To take a simple example, the helicopter traffic generated by skiers going to Courchevel (France) from Geneva Airport (Switzerland) is significant and could be operated by air taxis in the future. Will the Swiss and French UTM systems be able to integrate seamlessly enough to allow UAVs to operate this highly profitable route?

Such an air taxi will certainly have to interact and integrate with at least two UTM systems, one per country. With the market place concept, it could even be that more local services exist, serving only one busy airport for example. In a perfect world, such services would be standardized and interoperable at technical level. In a worst case scenario, the operator would have to fit different, multiple tracking devices on each vehicle to be able to take part in the traffic in a safe and efficient manner.

How will this end up when the market matures? It is really hard to say at this point. With many UTM companies around and even more UAV manufacturers, the market will likely go through a consolidation phase and only a few of the current actors will survive. You can count on FoxATM to keep a watchful eye on this part of our industry and keep you best informed about the latest developments.

This is a guest post by Vincent Lambercy, founder of FoxATM, a boutique consulting company serving the ATM industry, based in Germany.

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About Wayne Farley

I am Wayne, a career air traffic controller with over 30 years of industry experience. Engage me while I share my thoughts, experience, and news from around the aviation world. A post titled “13 Characteristics of an Air Traffic Controller” written in 2010 went viral and established me as the unofficial ambassador of ATC.

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