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Will Drones Kill ATC?

When Drones can do ‘Detect and Avoid’ we won’t need ATC any more.

The aviation community in Australia sometimes complains about the slow pace of change of the aviation legislation. Try changing the Laws of Physics!

Aviation has come a long way in the last 100 years but, these days, the gains being made in efficiency are slowing. Aircraft are getting lighter and engines are becoming more fuel efficient but the improvements are generally incrementally small. The technology being built into aircraft today will be around for 20, 30 or, perhaps, 40 years.

The point is, the laws of physics don’t change and, therefore, there is only so much that we can do to make improvements.

However, unlike the laws of physics…

Technology is changing very fast.

Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), commonly known as ‘Drones’, are improving and increasing in capability daily.

One of the barriers to a mid-air collision is the pilot looking out of the windscreen, seeing another aircraft and avoiding it. This is known as ‘See and Avoid’.

Both aircraft, traditionally, had a pilot, so there were 2 opportunities for avoidance of a collision – either pilot could avoid the other. However, drones don’t carry a pilot. The chances for See and Avoid are cut by half.

If drones had a system which could reliably ensure that the drone did not collide with anything, be that another aircraft or the ground (or anything fixed to the ground – telephone towers, wind turbines etc) then this ‘Detect and Avoid’ system would be a huge step forward.

I know there are drones that can fly inside buildings and avoid hitting walls and other obstacles. I know there are drones that can avoid other aircraft that are transponding or transmitting an ADS-B signal.

I understand that there are some really cashed-up organisations researching the use of drones – Facebook and Amazon amongst them. So, in my opinion, it is only a matter of time, a short time I suspect, before drones will be able to Detect and Avoid all obstacles whether transmitting, known or not.

When drones can fly reliably, without hitting anything, in accordance with the requirements of the aviation regulator, a huge step forward in aviation will have taken place.

The Detect and Avoid technology will quickly migrate into other areas of aviation.

I expect that the first to adopt it will be the homebuilt aircraft sector - these people are often the first to include new technology in their aircraft.

The flying training sector at the busier aerodromes will also be quick to see the benefits – the traffic in the lanes into and out of such places as Jandakot, Parafield, Moorabbin and Bankstown are notoriously busy. If the technology is small enough, light enough and cheap enough to fit into drones, the general aviation fraternity will love it.

Gliding – another sector where weight and cost are important. And they love to circle close to one another in thermals.

Then there will be pressure from the freight market. Get rid of one or both pilots – no passengers to worry that there is nobody up front. If the technology is reliable and consistently accurate, tried and tested to the satisfaction of the regulator, why not?

And if it is good enough for freight operators, then airlines will install it in aircraft operating with passengers.

Aircraft, whether with pilots or without, will be able to fly from one place to another without hitting anything. ANYTHING. Not trees or cranes, not mountains, tall buildings, wind turbines, power pylons or telephone towers. Not even other aircraft!

Air traffic control has the purpose of ensuring the safe, orderly and expeditious flow of air traffic. Safety is achieved, for the most part, by ensuring aircraft do not collide.

The Detect and Avoid technology will make that aspect redundant.

The "orderly and expeditious" aspects are already being dealt with by systems installed by Airservices Australia, the air navigation service provider in Australia.

Airservices Australia’s website has a paper entitled “Air Traffic Flow Management - Harmony for ANSPs” dated 11 January 2016 which describes the management of air traffic from before start-up until sequenced on final. The strategic element includes the use of Metron Harmony – a planning and flight schedule monitoring system. The tactical element includes Maestro which is a sequencing and metering tool. Much of the technology for the orderly and expeditious aspects already exists.

Airservices Australia and the Department of Defence are in the process of buying a brand new air traffic management data processing and display system called OneSKY Australia. They are obviously confident that technologies I have described above will not be developed for drones within the life of the system - 20 or so years.

Obviously I don’t know when these technologies will be available. I won’t happen tomorrow. It may take many years – maybe 20 years. International standards developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) can take a very long time to develop. Then they have to be incorporated into each nation’s legislation.

However, with the pace of development of technology as it is going today, particularly where drones are concerned, it is hard to say it won’t happen within a much shorter time than that.

And just because there may be no ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices or domestic legislation won't stop aircraft operators from using technology which can make a substantial improvement to their safety environment.

Will drones kill ATC?

Peter Cromarty

Peter Cromarty is a former air traffic controller and pilot. He spent 27 years as a safety regulator of ATM/CNS, airspace and aerodromes. View his Linked In profile

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