NATS outlines plan to help RPAS sector integrate with rest of aviation community
NATS, the UK's leading provider of air traffic control services, has identified a three-point plan for the RPAS (drone) sector to flourish and operate in harmony with the rest of the aviation industry.
John Swift, Director of NATS Middle East, (pictured right) said key to successful RPAS sector growth are improvements in small RPAS pilot training and awareness; the visibility of small RPAS to air traffic control and the design and agreement of procedures that will eventually allow larger RPAS access into controlled airspace.
“Training, is especially critical,” says Swift. “Amateur users need sufficient education about their responsibilities as RPAS pilots. There have been a number of incidents worldwide where small RPAS pilots have flown in dangerous proximity to conventional aircraft with potentially catastrophic results. It may seem obvious, but flying RPAS in and around airports is not a good idea. The second principle is the aspect of surveillance. Registering and tracking activities will be a key part of future separation solutions – this is likely to require at least a register of who is operating where and when – as the FAA has just instigated in the US - as well as possible surveillance and monitoring of lower airspace. Currently small RPAS are too small to be picked up on conventional radar, and the industry is now exploring a range of options - from geo-fencing to lightweight ADS-B transceivers – that might help increase their visibility and stop RPAS pilots from straying where they shouldn’t.”
For larger RPAS, NATS points to advancements made by the SESAR - Single European Sky ATM Research programme – Project CLAIRE. Last October, NATS announced it had controlled the first ever flight by an unmanned aircraft in non-segregated UK airspace as part of Project CLAIRE, which was designed to examine how to best integrate drones into controlled airspace.
“It’s important to note that we’re not talking about the small RPAS that the likes of which Amazon and Google want to use for things like parcel delivery. On the whole, it is expected that those won’t need regular access to controlled airspace,” explained Swift.
“Project CLAIRE was about identifying the procedures and processes to be applied to enable large RPAS operations in controlled airspace. For there to be any real market for the use of large unmanned aircraft, they need to be able to access controlled airspace like any other aircraft. That means the industry needs to work out how we can integrate them safely and with as little impact on air traffic controllers and the existing airspace users as possible.”
Swift says Project CLAIRE represented “a big step forward in the future development of RPASs” which could, in time, “open up the possibility of larger unmanned aircraft being used for cargo flights, search and rescue or environmental monitoring.”
Swift says wide, cross-sector collaboration is the way forward with all interests, including manufacturers and small businesses working together to ensure that drone pilots fly safely and legally.
“There are a growing number of clubs specifically for drone users, where operators may learn, develop, and gain experience safely,” he said.
Last December, NATS announced the successful development of a training course for small RPAS operators which can equip and educate employees with the knowledge and skills required for safe flight.
“With China opening its first drone pilot school last month, it’s almost impossible to guess how fast the RPAS industry will evolve in the coming years and what regulatory framework emerges around that. It’s completely new territory but certainly a debate we intend to remain fully engaged with,” added Swift.