From Segregation to Integration: Exploring solutions beyond U-space

Helicopter and drone in one airspace

U-space enables large-scale UAS operations, including beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights. By providing several services, drone operators may fulfil the requirements for BVLOS flights within the SORA framework (please check out our previous blog: ‘How U-space will impact the SORA’). The market for service providers (USSPs) will be competitive, and having a Single CIS (Common Information Service) provider will ensure a reliable, single source of (common) information. However, should we wait for U-space, or is there (in the meantime) an alternative to move away from the concept of segregation?

Demand is growing

We all know the demand for BVLOS flights is growing. For example, remote drone-in-the-box operations for public safety, long-distance flights to offshore platforms or medical drone delivery between hospitals. As soon as (large-scale) BVLOS flights can be integrated into the airspace, it is anticipated that traffic volumes will increase due to the growing number of viable business cases. To safely incorporate larger volumes of unmanned air traffic together with manned traffic in the same airspace, implementing U-space airspace is the appropriate approach.

However, before U-space can be implemented, several considerations must be addressed. These include the certification process for new entities, U-space Airspace Risk Assessment, the hearing process, technical infrastructure, and more. Waiting for U-space implementation would therefore hinder the industry’s growth. Furthermore, we should critically evaluate whether U-space is always the optimal solution for integrating unmanned aviation.

Airspace implementation

In April 2023, the UK Civil Aviation Authority released a policy concept for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights. The document outlines how unmanned aviation, particularly BVLOS flights, can be accommodated within the airspace. It highlights the fact that the current airspace is not yet prepared for unsegregated BVLOS flights. Currently, segregation is a common but limiting approach to accommodate BVLOS flights since it is not scalable.

Therefore, the UK is following a safety focussed approach from segregation to accommodation to integration. During the segregation phase, a Danger Area, either temporarily or permanently, will be designated within uncontrolled airspace. A Temporary Segregated Area (TSA) will be established in controlled airspace.

In the accommodation phase, a managed Temporary Restricted Area (TRA) will be implemented as the appropriate measure. This TRA will be supervised by the air navigation service provider (ANSP), who will regulate airspace access. These access and service provision arrangements will evolve with the development of (unmanned) traffic management services.

Ultimately, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) should be capable of operating alongside other airspace users. This requires the implementation of Detect And Avoid (DAA) systems, among other measures. The UK Innovation Hub states that UTM, or in Europe U-space, has a significant potential to bring elements of data collection, processing and dissemination to the Detect & Avoid ecosystem, as well as interaction with ATM.

“Electronic conspicuity is highly likely to be an essential enabler for DAA and therefore also for operations within TRAs” – UK Airspace Policy Concept

By combining these elements, it becomes evident that waiting for U-space implementation is not necessary to enable BVLOS flights. However, for large-scale implementation, a UTM solution serves as the appropriate solution.

Service provision

A UTM solution does not necessarily mean the implementation of the full U-space concept. In the meantime, a set of (UTM) services can be provided to safely integrate manned and unmanned aviation. This approach can also be a future-proof solution for airspaces with insufficient demand for a U-space deployment.

Currently, ANSPs are leading the way in providing services for drone operators. Primarily, they offer basic strategic services such as a digital drone chart and strategic deconfliction in controlled airspace. However, expanding services to unmanned aviation outside controlled airspace may fall outside the scope of ANSP responsibilities.

Therefore, new actors have been introduced within the U-space concept. USSPs and, when applicable, a CIS provider are responsible for information exchange and service provision within U-space. ANSPs will also be impacted, as discussed in Toby’s recent article: “The effects of the U-space implementation for ANSPs”.

Providing UTM services in airspace without a fully established U-space raises questions regarding service providers. Several countries are considering expanding the responsibilities of a Single CIS provider to serve operators outside U-space. ANSPs might also take on this role, and potential USSPs may see opportunities in providing services beyond U-space (or even before they have been certified). The definition of a set of basic services should be based on risk analysis and close collaboration with the CAA and end-users. The ultimate goal is to ensure the safe integration of unmanned aviation with manned aircraft in the same airspace.

By Toby Enzerink

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