Why is it important to bring together the worlds of UTM and telecommunications?

We were at the first Connected Skies event and I thought it was a gamechanger for what we’re doing within the UTM industry, bringing together two key industry organisations – GUTMA and GSMA – that need to focus on the problems of connectivity. OneSky is using our existing analysis capabilities for communications, navigation and surveillance performance and we’re working with cellular providers to understand their existing network data and to help develop technology that could be used to validate flight plans for continuous C2 connectivity.

Connected Skies offers us the ability to discuss these problems with network operators. We need to see what other UTM service providers are thinking about and come up with possible solutions. It’s a challenging problem. Some operators don’t want to share data about their network, they perceive that as a competitive issue.  We have to figure out ways to understand their data and predict their performance in a new domain without empirical information. After all, there are no drones flying currently at altitudes which would help us understand how cellular performs at different levels. We need to predict that behaviour to validate a flight plan to the quality required by an ANSP.

That’s the challenge and I think Connected Skies has finally brought together the two industries that can make this happen. Cellular might not be the only communication tool – there could be satcom or other communications methods – so Connected Skies could have to expand its thinking to support all BVLOS missions.

What kind of operations will require this level of connectivity?

I think communication is the most important infrastructure concern to the unmanned aerial system. In a conventional aircraft you have a pilot in the cockpit with hands to manipulate the flight control system and a brain to figure things out. But you remove the pilot from the cockpit and the only thing you have is the automation built on board and the C2 link. Assuming the drone manufacturer can provide perfect automation, the need for real time communication exists to respond to emergency situations, such as TFR’s or search and rescue operations. We can’t rely on fully autonomous systems. They need to be connected and will perform better as unit if they are connected.

As a software developer, we are developing UTM solutions. This includes STK, UTM and SDSP capabilities. We hope to enable operators by better predicting cellular coverage and making it available for flight authorization purposes. Connected Skies focuses on the C2 link; it brings into the discussion the requirements from a UAS and UTM perspective and allows the cellular industry to understand our requirements and translate that into their language.

What are we going to be doing in five years’ time, once the two worlds are more in sync?

I think initially we’re just trying to get vehicles to use the current network carrier capability. So how do we make cellular available to drone operators and how do we predict C2 quality and enable drones to move beyond visual line of sight? I think that’s going to happen in the next five years. At OneSky, we’re working on the concept of “the converged tower” which was briefly mentioned at the first Connected Skies by Mark Davis (Vice President in Next Generation Systems and Chief Technology Officer of CDMA Products and Development at Intel Corporation).

In this concept we would use the network infrastructure for more than just C2; it could be used for data gathering, for airborne information and for weather data collection. This would all feed into the UTM environment where the data could also interact with a drone in a more direct way so there’s not as much latency in the connectivity. We also want to explore bringing the UTM forward into edge-processing for services such as detect and avoid.  We think we could start to develop a UTM infrastructure provided by a network operator where the network itself offers the best infrastructure in terms of running a real-time high volume UTM environment. We want to be at the forefront of that.

What do you want to see come out of the next Connected Skies event, in terms of new business?

The first time we had GSMA and GUTMA together was in Madrid 2018 and then we moved to Portland with Connected Skies in early 2019, which was a huge success. But I think, however, we can meet with more cellular network operators at this year’s Connected Skies, since it is taking place at the same time and place as the Mobile World Congress. It will be a perfect opportunity to bring in as many as possible to show how aviation concepts can move their operations into new business areas.

There’s a lot of discussion about standards for SDSPs – if we have people building these software algorithms that sit inside a cellular network, we want to collaborate with more network providers to help analyse the gaps between currently provided services and services that will be required by UAS operators and the UTM so that we can jointly develop plans and partnerships to begin addressing those gaps. We should also be talking about what standards would allow those products to be opened up to a UTM community and vice versa.

And then business model discussions are key. I think the networks are timid to get involved because they don’t understand the business opportunities – they need to understand that UTM is really the key piece that opens up business for them and that we need to discuss benefits of UTM and how they could use it as a tool to encourage business.

There are many different views about where the value lies in this industry and how relationships are going to work to make sure everyone can be guaranteed a fair return on their investment.

The network on its own could develop capability and allow for drones to fly but I think as we move forward we have to develop a structure that allows all players, including ANSPs to recapture their investment to support UAVs and UTM. I think that the network needs to attract aircraft and maybe make modifications to the network to help authorise and validate flight-plans – providing extra services and an opportunity to recover revenue from BVLOS operations. I think networks are the key to flying BVLOS. If they can recover costs and make a profit then we need to figure out how to do that soon so that they’re more engaged in the discussion.

Chris Kucera is a co-founder of and Head of Strategic Partnerships at OneSky

The Connected Skies event will take place on 26 February 2020 in Barcelona, Spain. For more information please visit GUTMA Connected Skies 2020