U-Flyte researchers develop new concept for urban UTM

The 28-page paper reports that urban airspace and traffic management are probably the most challenging and extreme form of UTM implementation – with large areas to cover, high traffic loadings and pervasive human-activity. Urban UTM involves many stakeholders: regulators, ATC, drone service providers, UTM service providers, municipal/city councils and community representatives, among others. But there is a lack of detail in overarching UTM national/international frameworks (FAA/NASA UTM as well as European U-space) as to how these urban UTM systems should be designed, constructed and implemented. This has resulted in a fragmented approach to developing and rolling out these Urban UTMs – with various research groups, drone service providers etc doing different things or trying to solve the same problem again and again.

The U-Flyte research team has designed an airspace model and integrated traffic management that is scalable – initially handling 700 drones at any one instant over an urban area 115sqkm (up to 400’).

According to the paper, some of the principles that will need to be embraced include:

  • Urban airspace design needs to be open, transparent, collaborative in nature
  • Urban airspace design is inextricably linked to the traffic management system – very few researchers/developers deal with these together – more usually focused on one or the other
  • Risk to ground based vulnerable activity is pervasive throughout an urban area – a ‘certificate of airworthiness’ process should be applied to drones wishing to fly for reward over cities/towns – similar to EASA’s current eVTOL (AirTaxi) certification initiative
  • Other key areas include automated landing/take-off, communications (C2/data link), airspace monitoring (ground/air to handle both cooperative/un-cooperative airspace users), registration etc will need to be addressed
  • VLL airspace (<500’) over cities/towns and outside of localised controlled airports should be managed by an urban UTM network and commercial/GA traffic will need to seek permission to descend into this space with the exception of police/ambulance helicopters
  • Key datasets for designing airspace includes; DEM, land class/use, administrative/property boundary and near real-time human activity
  • New airspace primitive zones including NFZ, PPZ and TRZ are proposed (the latter two could be licensed – i.e. financial payment to land-owners) also move from safety concerns to privacy/nuisance concerns
  • Traffic management can be efficiently operated using an airspace graph (edge/node structure), as well as various ‘travel’ and ‘deconfliction’ layers to accommodate maximum traffic loadings safely and efficiently

The researchers have concluded traffic management should incorporate the idea of a ‘safety tube’ for drones, as well as robust, computationally efficient, optimised strategic (pre-flight) and tactical (in-flight) deconfliction path-finding. An emergency event handling protocol needs to be put in-place to handle all kinds of internal (e.g. loss of power/flight control) and external events (emergency helicopter operations).  The Initial urban system should be centralised, structured and managed by a single UTM traffic manager in the first implementation cycle, with various UTM services feeding into this UTM traffic manager. Finally, the urban UTM system should lean towards reducing/removing ‘human in the loop’ at drone operator and ATC level and let the machines fly and manage traffic with human input at oversight level. This means the UTM traffic manager provider will fly the drone or drone fleet on behalf of the drone service provider(s).

The U-Flyte research partnership: investigating ways to widen the bottleneck impeding more complex drone operationsU-Flyte is a strategic research partnership, coordinated by Maynooth University and funded by SFI, together with Industry collaborators including Airbus, Irelandia Aviation and INTEL. U-Flyte intends tackling the current global bottleneck impeding the wider development of drone operation and roll-out of commercial services. The core R&D work-plan is based around a series of inter-connected work-packages that deal with investigating, building and testing Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) – U-Traffic Management (UTM), underpinned by a 3D drone airspace model (U-Space). Research in downstream application services includes investigating rapid, wide area swarm mapping configurations, object detection & tracking and optimised logistical modelling

The aim of U-Flyte is to tackle the current global log-jam impeding the wider development of drone operation and the roll-out of commercial services by providing the necessary research, data and case studies to guide agencies and industry in allowing drones to safely fly further and higher than the current limits. The programme will see researchers recreate flying environments for drones as digital models, taking into account a wide range of factors like air traffic, buildings and electricity lines, and then testing them in the real world at Waterford Airport and other selected locations around Ireland.


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