By Skyports Head of Technology, Jef Geudens
In multiple countries, the pandemic has accelerated the usage of drones for medical logistics purposes. The UK government has recognised the potential that drones bring to the NHS and has decided to fast-track several Beyond-Visual-Line-Of-Sight (BVLOS) medical drone delivery projects in support of the COVID-19 relief effort. Earlier this year, Skyports became the first company in the UK to fly BVLOS between two hospitals, delivering vital PPE equipment and medical goods to remote practices in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. (Link).
The Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) services required to support BVLOS operations are gradually being rolled out and on-board Detect-And-Avoid (DAA) technologies are beginning to gain certification from aviation regulators. However, at present, the primary means of facilitating BVLOS operations in existing airspace is through the creation of Temporary Danger Areas (TDAs). Whilst effective, segregation of existing airspace lacks the scalability required to integrate drones on a wider scale. Regulators around the world have been working towards new airspace frameworks that would allow manned and unmanned aircraft to coexist in the same airspace.
Now, the UK CAA has taken a big step towards the integration of manned and unmanned aviation by announcing the creation of UAS geozones. These zones will allow drone delivery service providers to execute BVLOS missions that are in the public interest. The zones will also ensure the safety of all airspace stakeholders by mandating that aircraft requiring access to the geozone be equipped with a pre-defined means of electronic conspicuity.
To set up a geo-zone, the following conditions need to be met by the airspace sponsor:
- The sponsor needs to set up the required level of equipage (e.g. ADS-B) to enter the zone and define the conditions of entry.
- The sponsor also needs to conduct a consultation with other airspace stakeholders as part of the CAA’s Airspace Change Process.
To operate a Geo-zone, the airspace sponsor should adhere to the following additional rules:
- Keep data on the AIP up to date.
- Activate and de-activate the area by NOTAM if required.
- Provide fair and equitable use of the airspace for all stakeholders.
- The use of VHF Radio Telephony (RT) should not be required for UAS to obtain access to a UAS Geographical Zone.
- Any legitimate request to access a UAS geozone should be accommodated by the sponsor in a timely manner.
- The sponsor can decide as to how to process the access request (via a phone, website, UTM platform, etc.).
- The sponsor will not charge for access to airspace for UAS operators or manned aviation.
On top of the equipage requirements, any UAS operator wishing to fly BVLOS in a UAS geozone also requires the accompanying exemption from the CAA to do so.
Skyports is committed to working with the GA community and emergency services to showcase the potential benefits that UAS geozones could provide to the aviation industry in the short-term. That is why we are currently exploring how we can help fund EC hardware for any aircraft that operate on a regular basis in any of the geozones where Skyports is active. These funds are in addition to those currently available from the UK Government (Link).
The challenges associated with widespread usage of ADS-B technology for congested UAS operations are well understood. It is expected that the manifestation of these issues will result only if the density of operating UAS reaches a significantly high level. At present, this level of saturation is not anticipated for the upcoming geozones.
The geozones’ equipment requirements will mature over time and the end goal will remain an end-to-end UTM system that will allow for UAS operations to take place in unsegregated airspace. For the industry to succeed and attain that milestone, it requires a pragmatic approach in the short-term that supports our NHS and provides a safe environment for manned and unmanned operators to coexist.