Drone watch: integrating UAV movements into air traffic control

The issues that rogue drones cause for air traffic control are well documented. But, can current systems be rewired to track drone movements and prevent disaster? Airborne Concept and Egis believe they have the answer, and have demonstrated the visualisation of a mini-drone on the screens of the air traffic control system of the French Civil Aviation Authority. Could this system help put drones under the watchful gaze of airport ATC?

The world’s skies are more congested than ever before, and with civilian drones catching on in a big way in the consumer market, they’re only getting busier. The frequency of incidents involving drones has been increasing in many developed countries. The UK Airprox Board, which monitors safety issues in British airspace, identified 56 air proximity incidents involving drones (at the time of writing) since the start of last year, 32 of which could have jeopardised aircraft safety.

In the US, meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration logged a staggering 583 drone incidents between August 2015 and January last year; most were minor incidents but several near-misses and dozens of airport airspace incursions were reported, including a drone spotted just 20ft from a commercial plane outside New York’s JFK Airport.

“Even if you don’t have a collision, the fact that you have a distraction at a critical point, that’s dangerous,” British Airline Pilots Association safety officer Steve Landells told the Guardian in November, emphasising the particular threat of drone incidents during take-off and landing operations.

Technology companies are introducing innovations to help mitigate the threat of rogue drones. Take French firms Egis and Airborne Concept, for example. The engineering consultancy and drone manufacturer (respectively) have partnered on a prototype project to help visualise drone incursions on ATC screens, which struggle to identify and track small objects.

The team’s system involves an ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast) transceiver, which itself is somewhat ironically mounted on a small drone, allowing for real-time visualisation of certain mini-drones on ATC screens. Egis and Airborne Concept demonstrated their technology to the French Civil Aviation Authority (DGAC) in September, and aim to commercialise the concept this year. We spoke to Egis project manager Éric Denèle to discuss the technology’s benefits, limitations and suitability as part of airport ATC operations.

Chris Lo: When did Egis start collaborating with Airborne Concept on this drone visualisation technology?

Éric Denèle: Our cooperation with Airborne Concept started in January 2015 in the context of a team-building event organised by Egis. The purpose was to widen the scope of mind and work of a company’s team outside of conventional aviation topics. After a one-day event, we were convinced that there were a lot of promising perspectives and room for cooperation between the teams of Egis and Airborne Concept around this new technology. Through this cooperation Airborne Concept is bringing expertise as a drone manufacturer and Egis is bringing its aeronautical expertise to the table.

CL: What problems can small civilian drones cause for airport airspace?

ED: There could be several problems caused by mini-drones near airports and airfields. We could mention, for example, illegal flights near airports with civilian mini-drones being flown inside the airport perimeter, either for malevolent purposes or negligently. The biggest issue of concern is certainly about the growing number of reports of air proximity occurrences between mini-drones and aircraft. Although drone pilots have become increasingly aware of existing and newly-issued rules for unmanned aircraft – and especially authorised flight areas – it remains quite difficult to precisely assess height restrictions when flying a recreational drone near an airport.

A loss of control or flyaway of a drone can be a critical issue for air traffic controllers and aircraft pilots who are then forced to quickly react to avoid a collision with the lost drone. The UK Airprox Board has been monitoring and listing the different air proximity occurrences with drones since 2010. Since early 2016, the UK Airprox Board has identified 32 incidents that have potentially jeopardised passenger aircraft safety.

CL: What are the benefits of the ADS-B transceiver that Egis has developed with Airborne Concept?

ED: The solution by Egis and Airborne Concept has been developed through an aeronautical perspective and is based on the conventional ‘see and avoid’ concept of aviation. While adapting to drones a technology that is originally designed for commercial aircraft, we are naturally working on a solution which is already field-proven by airlines and air navigation service providers. Many airports across the globe are equipped with ADS-B receiver antennas. For this reason, our solution is cost-effective in the sense that it does not force air traffic control stakeholders to buy new equipment.

CL: Egis and Airborne Concept demonstrated the technology to France’s DGAC in September. Was it successful?

ED: The demonstration to France’s DGAC in September reached its goal in demonstrating that the developed concept is realistic and completely viable with current civil aviation equipment. Officials from the French Department of Defence have shown particular interest in our technology, which is also based on a tablet computer that displays the identity of the monitored drone and shows its accurate position on a map. A user can then visualise on the map other ADS-B fitted mini-drones but also ADS-B aircraft within several dozen nautical miles of distance around. Through this demonstration, we were also able to show that users do not need to rely on a network infrastructure since an ADS-B emitter and receiver are the only required equipment to potentially track down a mini-drone.

CL: Which drones is the transceiver designed to spot, and which drones are incompatible with the system?

ED: Our prototype is a multi-copter which weighs 8kg. Working on other drones raises the issue of the ratio between the weight of the ADS-B transceiver – i.e. 100g – and the weight of the mini-drone. Airborne Concept is currently working on further miniaturising the transceiver and on reducing electricity consumption. However, the challenge is also on emitting a radio signal as strong as those emitted by commercial aircraft, while not interfering with the drone’s own on-board control system. Airborne Concept has successfully managed to overcome this technical difficulty on our prototype.

CL: The ADS-B transceiver is interoperable with current ATC systems. Would this make the technology particularly cost-effective to install for airports?

ED: For ADS-B equipped airports, the solution developed is particularly interesting because it is a plug-and-play device potentially supported by drone manufacturers or operators alone. Therefore it does not imply any new equipment purchase for the airport.

CL: Given that the transceiver itself is mounted on a drone, would ATC staff need new training to properly operate the system?

ED: Identifying a mini-drone on an air traffic control system would be in principle similar to identifying any other type of aircraft through an ADS-B OUT signal, but might add to the complexity of air traffic. Drones need to be treated as new types of aircraft and would necessarily require proportionate rules and practices for air traffic control staff and other personnel operating drones.

Likewise, handling drones within air traffic service would require analysing and adjusting working methods, phraseology and Human Machine Interfaces. Training may need to be updated as a consequence of changed practices. It has to be noted that at the European level, there are indeed initiatives ongoing to put in place a harmonised EU regulatory framework for remotely-piloted aircraft systems [RPAS], allowing for a safe and efficient integration of new flying objects into European airspace. The Egis group is also contributing to regulatory development matters through its UK-based aviation consultancy Helios. For example, the company is active in an industry-led RPAS focus group with the goal of achieving integration of unmanned air systems within civil airspace.

CL: How do Egis and Airborne Concept plan to develop this concept and move it towards commercialisation?

ED: Airborne Concept is currently seeking sources of funding that could support its development work, especially regarding the aeronautical certification of the ADS-B transceiver. Commercialisation is expected in the course of 2017. We are potentially targeting any aviation market where ADS-B technology is already available at airports and for air traffic control. Light aviation could be an alternative outlet for this device.