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Do not blame the drones for outpacing airspace regulation

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Commercial aviation has been a reality in the UK since at least the 1920s. But it wasn’t until 1962 that a truly unified system for the country was launched under the auspices of the National Air Traffic Control Service, now the NATS.

Shockingly, even in the modern surveillance era, there is still no equivalent unified traffic control system in place for drones, which have been a serious presence in the UK for at least a decade. Taking another 30 years to develop a similar system for unmanned aircraft is not an option. As the Gatwick and Heathrow rogue flying incidents show, a unified system must be a priority. Don’t blame the drones for paralysing a major airport: blame the lack of regulation and information sharing. An enormous amount of time would have been spared if we had understood where these drones were coming from — and if they were hostile. Further drone commercialisation depends on organising drone airspace too. Without it, unmanned aerial package delivery will not be possible.

Fascinatingly, we are not held back by lack of technology. As is often the case when creating systems for varied actors operating in a public commons — in this case our airspace — inaction stems from having to respect opposing needs while encouraging co-operation. Motivating competing private entities and official ones to co-operate on information sharing is hard. This is especially true if operations are deemed commercially sensitive. Public visibility of an oil operator’s maintenance drones, for example, might create a competitive disadvantage for the company. Real time tracking of official drones as they’re dispatched to respond to a major incident, meanwhile, might compromise national security.

Anonymised data, which can only be de-anonymised by authorities when necessary, is clearly essential. But this poses another problem. Air traffic control systems are already stretched. For a unified system to be established, the remit of air traffic controllers must be expanded to cover the unmanned sector. As it stands, drone operators needing to fly in civil aviation space have to make requests to air traffic controllers. Responses can take weeks if not months due to the lack of resources.

To spare resources, any unmanned traffic management — or UTM to use industry parlance — would have to automate things as much as possible. But platforms offering such capabilities emerge from the private sector. While it is tempting to sit back and wait for one particular platform to triumph in bringing all the varying data pools about private fleets together (while proving trustworthy on data and security), intervention by authorities is probably necessary to accelerate the process.

Luckily, the UK already has the chance to become the global standard. Commercial operators are already required by the UK Civil Aviation Authority to obtain permission. Just combining this information with voluntarily submitted flight plans would help improve the data picture enormously, according to industry professionals.

Nonetheless, there are always going to be companies who want to dominate data gathering. In the US, Amazon is vying for pole position, which makes many industry participants uncomfortable. To keep the playing field level and open, authorities will need to think carefully about who they partner with and for how long.

NATS has struck up partnerships with private data specialists like Altitude Angel. They are attempting to stitch together the data by working with UK fleet managers. They are also setting up sensors at strategic venues such as Manchester airport, capable of detecting rogue drones.

“There are some activities that you can’t give out to multiple companies, you can’t compete on safety,” says Richard Parker, chief executive of Altitude Angel. Authorities will also have to consider funding. Fees raised through registration licences are one option. But the objective must be to get as many operators into the system as possible and to to do so urgently.

izabella.kaminska@ft.com

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