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The Drone Market

By Andy Thurling, Chief Technology Officer, NUAIR Alliance

The Drone MarketAndy Thurling, Chief Technology Officer, NUAIR Alliance

In June, at the FAA UAS Symposium in Baltimore, PrecisionHawk CEO, Michael Chasen, asserted that drones had crossed the technology adoption “chasm” described by Geoffrey Moore in his 1991 book, “Crossing the Chasm.”

Perhaps Mr. Chasen is correct – for drone applications done within the visual line of sight (VLOS) of the remote pilot in command, but I respectfully disagree when the topic becomes the more complex, and potentially much more profitable, operations that can be conducted beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the remote pilot. For BVLOS applications, I would place the drone industry firmly of the left-hand side of that “chasm”.

In Moore’s model, the “Early Majority” is the market that is being reached once the technology crosses the chasm. The early majority are often described as “pragmatists” in comparison to the technologists and visionaries who reside on the “other” side of the chasm. A quick check of the dictionary reveals that a pragmatist may be described as “a person who is guided more by practical considerations than by ideals” and “advocate of the approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.” Thus, for the drone industry to reach this pragmatic early majority, we must show the practical application of the technologies we want them to adopt.

Earlier in my career, I was involved in analyzing a safety case for a BVLOS commercial drone application. These were the days before the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS) Specific Operations Risk Assessment (SORA), so I did it the “old fashioned way” using standard aviation system safety techniques. What came to light very clearly after we completed the analysis was that BVLOS drones needed several technologies to be “safe enough.” One of them was a drone traffic management system that enabled safe mission planning to avoid risky areas (on the ground and in the air) and kept drones from running into one another. We now call that technology “Unmanned Traffic Management” or UTM.

NASA started the UTM project back in 2014 with a “Build a Little, Test a Little” philosophy and progressed over the next several years through four builds, defined as technology capability levels (TCLs). NASA and the FAA established a UTM Research Transition Team (RTT) in 2016 to transition the technology from NASA research to the field. Unfortunately, the “Build a Little, Test a Little” philosophy wasn’t followed by “Field a Little.” The FAA Integration Pilot Program (IPP) and UTM Pilot Program have yet to yield any results which are widely applicable, i.e., fieldable. It is hard to believe, but five years into the UTM program there are still no requirements published regarding how “well” the system should perform any one of the many functions defined as part of the UTM ecosystem.

For this we cannot lay the blame at the feet of NASA; they are a research organization by charter and aren’t expected to “field” systems. Nor can we really blame the FAA, which is not funded to create an entirely new traffic management system for a new entrant (that would be “us”) to the national airspace (NAS).

Rather we need to look to ourselves, to the UAS industry, and see that we have failed to take a step back from our demonstrations of new capability and features to establish a fieldable tranche of UTM capability with which we may show the value of BVLOS applications to the “Early Majority” on the other side of Moore’s chasm.

The UAS community’s objective should be a “fieldable” and “operationalized” UTM. We cannot consider UTM to be operationalied until such a system can support a sustainable business case for UAS manufacturers, Operators, UAS Service Suppliers (USS), and Supplemental Data Service Providers (SDSPs). For a UAS business to be sustainable, it must be a commercial civil operation having moved beyond the experiments executed routinely by the FAA-designated UAS Test Sites.

This sustainable business case must incorporate civil BVLOS operations to scale effectively. Such a civil operation could be conducted under a waiver to the current Part 107, a “permit to fly” similar to the EASA “Specific” category or under some new rulemaking like the FAA’s Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certificates (MOSAIC). Safe and effective BVLOS airspace integration will require an approved UTM service that provides acceptable surveillance performance to mitigate the hazards to manned aircraft as well as meet the requirements of 91.111 and 91.113.

A civil BVLOS operation will require an “airworthy” system to some degree – and this will have some risk-based level of performance requirements attached to it. So, we need performance requirements for the “ecosystem” – e.g., aircraft performance, flight planning, surveillance, weather, C2, and other services – appropriate for the airspace in which operations are being approved.

Civil Aviation Authorities (CAAs) around the world want to use UTM/U-Space services as mitigations to the risks inherent in UAS operations. But, without requirements and standards that define the level to which these services are effective, it is impossible to quantify the amount of risk mitigation an Operator can claim when using a UTM/U-space service. Despite many top-level strategic discussions on the topic of what UTM and U-space are intended to provide, there are no published standards that define the expected level of performance for any of the services in the proposed ecosystem. We defined “what” UTM does, and “how” it talks, but not “how well” it should do anything.

A person who is guided more by practical considerations than by ideals” and “advocate of the approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application

In a “fielded” UTM ecosystem, Operators whose UAS meet the vehicle performance required to enter UTM airspace may subscribe to a USS that meets the performance requirement for flight planning, surveillance and weather services. With verified performance, the Operator can be granted that waiver, or “permit to fly.” Thus, a set of validated performance requirements is essential to moving the UTM ecosystems past the “demonstration” phase.

A UTM ecosystem will not be able to move out of the flight test environment of the UAS test sites until a validated set of performance requirements has been established for the minimum viable set of USS services. 

Only with verified performance on both sides (vehicle and USS/SDSP) will waivers, Performance Authorizations, and/or “permit to fly” become routine. While a data ICD or mature API can be interpreted as a “standard,” what the community really needs are some “initial” performance standards.

The UAS industry is somewhat of a victim of having too much knowledge about what is possible. We all see streams of drones flying autonomously, deconflicting themselves from each other as well as other hazards in the air and on the ground in some kind of unscripted aerial ballet. We know what is possible because we have seen simulations and perhaps even demonstrations of this capability on YouTube. But the truth is that it is much easier to make a demonstration look compelling than it is to architect a system capable of handling all the real-world issues that could be thrown at it, weather, non-cooperative aircraft, etc.

Manned aviation now has precise navigation that allows for highly accurate approaches enabling large increases in airspace efficiency - and we want that for UAS. But manned aviation didn’t start there, in fact, it started with a succession of concrete arrows on the ground spaced out every few miles from New York to San Francisco and lit by revolving lights on top of 60-foot towers. These primitive “navigational aids” helped pilots find their way more safely. After the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 created the FAA, aviation evolved into a more complex system of airways, the “Victor” airways with a map resembling connect-the-dots in which each dot was a VHF omni-directional range (VOR) station.

I’m not suggesting we go all the way back to primitive concrete arrows, but we need to stop being hamstrung by fixating on the “perfect” solution. We need to focus on establishing the first tranche of UTM capability that is “good enough” to get performance authorizations to do real commercial BVLOS work and demonstrate the business case BVLOS drones provide to those “pragmatists” and early majority. Only then will we cross the technology adoption “chasm”.

Fundamentally, aviation functions may be broken down into “Aviate”, “Navigate”, and “Communicate”. UAS specific functional breakdowns add the “Operate” function to encompass some of the functions normally accomplished by an in situ human pilot such as collision avoidance, and contingency management. Initial UTM performance requirements could be broken down along very similar lines:

• Aviate – “How well do I maintain course and altitude?” - analogous to “Flight Technical Error”

• Navigate – “How accurately can I determine my position?” – analogous to “Required Navigation Performance”

• Communicate – “How reliable is my datalink?” - analogous to “Required Communication Performance”

• Operate – “How well do I avoid collisions and adverse weather?” – analogous to Part 91 pilot requirements

This, in a nutshell, is the strategy behind what we are doing at the New York UAS Test Site (NYUASTS) and NUAIR. We are working jointly with the UAS commercial industry, standards development organizations (SDOs), and the FAA in establishing and validating performance requirements that can be used to move the UTM ecosystem into the field.

We are architecting, configuring, and resourcing the NYUASTS and 50- mile UTM Corridor to validate each increment of evolving UTM capability by laying down a roadmap for the disciplined flight test evaluation. We are ready to validate the performance requirements envisioned in each tranche of fieldable UTM capability and will be ready to verify compliance of UA/ USS/SDSP to standards defining UTM requirements.

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