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“Suddenly, you had local police and politicians cheering for UTM” – UTM industry-leader interview with Benoit Curdy , Secretary General of #GUTMA on unmannedairspace.info.

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ICAO and national regulators are introducing a wide range of drone registration programmes for operators, pilots and platforms. Are you concerned that unless these are all harmonised in some way there will be multiple, separate regulations being developed around the world?  What can the association do to help harmonise standards and procedures?

I think registration is one of the issues that everyone in the commercial drone industry agrees must be done first. It’s a no-brainer – it helps build everything else. States have historically been responsible for registering all types of vehicles and it seems unlikely that it will be different for drones.  Although the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has proposed some kind of European Union (EU)-wide register as an option in its NPA, it’s much more likely that in Europe we will set up a series of national registries. The USA and Japan will have their own national registries. We are very interested in the ICAO initiative to have a registration programme that would allow for international operations and we will be developing proposals for collaborating with ICAO on a technical solution to this.

In today’s world it’s not that much of an issue if we have different registries. What we need is authentication and data-exchange methods so that even if everyone uses different technologies and data-sets it won’t be a major hurdle to harmonise them. Of course we might find that some people suddenly appear with some outlandish ideas but so far we have seen nothing that concerns us. ICAO is the recognised body for international aviation operations and as long as you have an ICAO number or an ICAO unique ID, and a local or national ID number, you should be able to make it work.

But it’s not just regulators who will be interested in developing drone registry systems – insurance and finance companies might also want to know where their platforms are.

The main challenge is the scope of registration.  Some countries will have systems for which only commercial operators will need to register their drones and others will require any drone above 250g to be registered. If you want to fly your drone in two countries these different rules could prove difficult. The ICAO registry system would then apply to cross-border operations and in places like Geneva there will be plenty of them. We are closely following what is currently happening in the USA, where the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been given the authority to run the register. But GUTMA does not lobby politicians; we are focused on providing technical answers to regulatory bodies based on their preferences. We don’t tell them what to do – unless we start seeing things proposed that would make the rest of the UTM architecture impossible, then we’d let them know.

So you’re in regular contact with standards bodies like RTCA and EUROCAE?

Two very important initiatives are the European UAS Standards Coordination Group (EUSCG) and the US Drone Advisory Committee (DAC). We’re part of both and it’s very important work. But UTM is only one subset of everything that needs to be done for the drone industry to flourish and we understand that we really need everybody on board to discuss all the issues.  That doesn’t mean we will never see competing initiatives but if that ever happens, those should not be born out  of ignorance, they must aim at providing clear alternatives to the market and to regulators.

Are there any organisations outside North America and Europe that are also playing important roles in developing standards and procedures to open up the industry?

In terms of organisations we’re working with there’s JUTM, for example, a GUTMA member. We see a lot of activity in Japan in this area and it’s really quite impressive. Beyond the usual actors such as ISO and RTCA In terms of non-aviation bodies we’re in touch with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) as frequency allocation is a very important issue for us, and the GSM Association, who also have an important role to play.

Which States do you think have developed the best procedures and programmes to ensure all stakeholders are creating safe and effective UTM systems?

There are two things I find very encouraging at the moment – the UAS Integration Pilot Programme and the SESAR demonstrator network announced recently in Helsinki. Both will provide clarity to this question. What we have seen in Europe with the demonstration in Geneva in September is that in terms of technology these kind of demonstrator programmes are the right way to move ahead. Regulators and standards bodies can look at these demonstrators and understand what industry intends to do based on common procedures and common goals. These two initiatives are still flexible enough so that people can get what they want from them. The Geneva demonstration in September had a huge impact – not only did it prove what could be done in terms of U-space for Europe, but also its educational impact on local authorities was immense. Suddenly you had local police and politicians cheering for UTM because they understood the value. It couldn’t get any better and that educational part is crucial. You can only get that by putting people on the ground – real operators doing real operations. There’s no other way.

When do you think the first UTM-enabling regulations will appear? Is 2020 realistic?

I think that date sound good.  The one major outcome I expect from the demonstrators is data sharing and if we don’t get that they will be a failure. I don’t see how you can do safety performance without data and the next step is to decide how it’s going to be shared. I understand there is commercial data that you don’t want to share but there is other data you need to share. We will need to agree this collectively and once that happens I believe we can progress in a fairly straightforward line.

And when you talk about data which are the critical areas of data we need to share?

There are many – but everything around performance in terms of failures, mean time between failures, for example, and operations in dense airspace areas, will be critical. We still need to understand what kind of densities we are talking about if we want to see regular operations in urban areas. Weather is another issue – we do not have a lot of data on weather in urban environments and it’s difficult to see how to get authority to approve anything if we don’t know the conditions the drones will be flying in.

There are issues about battery performance and plenty of other technical issues. Flying at night brings up the question of noise. Many people say noise is a non-issue and others say it is a major issue so I’m happy to believe anyone if they provide the data to prove it one way or another.

So we’re at an early stage in terms of accumulating the data and sharing it in a systematic way.

Yes. I think if we look at the priorities, helping to harmonise demonstrators is very important to us. Let’s try to have a global view of demonstrators – not just national or European.

We have started with the UTM high-level architecture document and I think that the first version is already a little bit outdated but the impact of being able to point to a document and speak the same language has been really strong.  This and the education process – internally and externally – is key. We have a lot of different industries that need to learn to work together and somebody has to do it by building bridges. That’s why data exchange is so important.

We have also developed a flight declaration protocol that allows UTM providers to show where drones are flying. It doesn’t tell you what your competitor is doing it only highlight the fact that two drones are in the same area and you might need to do something about it. We need to strike a balance between openness and data protection.  That’s why we need a flight-logging protocol that allows you to extract data in a way that can be shared and used more easily than it is today.

What are your four major priority programmes?

At the moment we’re still developing the UTM architecture, making sure that it’s aligned with the different initiatives in the US, Europe and Japan and with other partners we have. Data exchange and demonstrators are really huge projects for us. Finally, internal and external education initiatives are going to use a lot of our time next year.

Do you have any concerns about the different ways the USA and Europe are looking at developing UTM systems?

At this stage it is very fragmented within both the USA and Europe. Some areas are very advanced but other places don’t understand or are not necessarily interested in developing UTM systems. But we don’t have any major concerns. We understand there will be several different approaches because each country will have different security priorities, for example. There’s nothing so far that we’ve seen which is a show-stopper. Most UTM stakeholders are global by nature and they pay a lot of attention to making everything inter-operable. So far it’s working very well.

What will GUTMA be doing in five years’ time it’s not doing now?

It’s hard to know where the industry will be in six months never mind five years. We have three hashtags – global, interoperable and fast. The first two are kind of linked but the last one is mainly about the actions we should be taking as an association. The goal of GUTMA is to accelerate the implementation of commercial UTM systems and once this is done if there’s still a role or need for us we’ll do it.

Life cycles are getting shorter for every product and every organization, this is the name of game in innovation. It is wrong to think that any organisation should last forever. If we accomplish our mission, that’s great. Where there are needs, we’ll be happy to fill them.

You see your role as a catalyst, perhaps even a short-term catalyst?

If we succeed, it is a short-term role. I hope in two to three years we’ll have the value chain in place and as long as we don’t have the value chain it’s hard to see what the needs will be. There are so many scenarios.  In the scenario where ANSPs do most of the UTM work, do you really need another trade association or should it be part of CANSO’s remit? Or maybe UTM will be delivered by organisations other than ANSPs. Thinking about these questions without the data is a waste of time.  Let’s make it happen and then see.

When are we going to see the first full-blown UTM launch?

That is a tough one. If we follow the party line like that of the EU and NASA then in 2019 we’ll get the first implementation of UTM. We should not focus on a complete UTM system. We use the analogy of the internet – the internet didn’t just appear one day and then it was done.

In 2019 we’ll get the first UTM interconnect which will be a registration system, an identification maybe and a geo-fencing system definitely. But then going to night-time operations, any weather conditions, urban canyoning and delivery-to-your-door in an urban environment – that will take many more years for sure. There’s still a whole lot to do. And who’s going to pay for the development?  We need to understand is there any role for the government or is it only industry.  Is there a benefit for society at large great enough so that we should all of us pay for it or not?

I don’t know anybody who has an answer for that.

At what stage does the question of who-will-pay-for-it become crucial?

I think we can go a long way without it.  If you look at geo-fencing, registration and identification – although you always have to be a bit more careful with identification – it is clear that we can do a lot of this without public money, outside of SESAR and NASA.

But if we want to build a real infrastructure then we will definitely need some kind of public funding.  I think it might come from leveraging other autonomous system infrastructures as we’ve been able to leverage telecommunications infrastructures. For example, driverless cars will need to know about their own environment which could mean each vehicle will carry a sensor that will tell others about its position and the world around it.  Maybe a drone can simply interrogate a car’s autonomous system and discover it’s too windy to fly – rather than having to put sensors on each building.

We need to discuss formally at some stage how all autonomous transport systems will work together.

Benoit Curdy is Secretary General of the Global Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management Association (GUTMA)