As the number of potential drone applications grows, so too does their prevalence in the global airspace. This increase in usage brings with it significant potential pitfalls – like the drone sightings that disrupted Gatwick airport in London, in December 2018. Drones are difficult to detect and are often missed by conventional radars. increasing the risk of collision with other drones, or with other air traffic, even during non-confrontational drone flights. Regulation exists to manage this, but it is restrictive. While authorities are working to reduce these restrictions, they have to do so in a way that guarantees a high level of airspace safety. The CLASS project worked to analyse tools and systems necessary to safely integrate drones into air traffic, creating a prototype traffic management system specifically designed to spot and incorporate evolving drone technology.
Spotting the drones
One of the major challenges that drones present is visibility. “As pilots are not physically on the drones, they cannot see other drones. Even pilots on manned aircraft usually can’t see drones, as they are too small.” explains Mr Alexandre Piot from Airbus and CLASS project coordinator. “CLASS investigated tools to build a comprehensive airspace picture, so that all air-users and authorities could see where drones are flying, to enforce safety in the sky.” The project has developed a prototype traffic management system, for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). The services this system offers will create open, fair and safe access to the shared airspace, helping drones share airspace safely with other air traffic. CLASS focused on drone tracking, combining multiple data streams taken from tracking information and innovative radar systems. “Once you can track the aircraft, you can organise the traffic, monitoring compliance with airspace rules and signalling alerts when potential collisions are detected,” says Mr Piot. System functions include real-time drone tracking and display. Some of the more advanced functions include ‘geo-fencing’, which tells drone pilots if they are straying into unauthorised airspace; ‘geo-caging’, if the drone leaves the area it is supposed to be in; and the detection and resolution of any emerging problems.
Putting it into practice
To test the system, the team flew drones at Deenethorpe airfield in the United Kingdom, collecting data from the tracker and radar. The team then cross-checked these data datasets to ensure that the system was identifying the same object. The real-time tracking system was tested, while other more complete demonstrations are currently ongoing around the world. At the moment, the radar system has a limited field of view, meaning it can only pick up small drones within five kilometres. While this is not sufficient to cover a whole country, they can protect sensitive areas like airports,” says Mr Piot. The team faced some challenges during the project, not least from typical British weather. “The weather in England mid-October can be really windy and rainy, which are challenges for drones!” explains Mr Piot. Mr Piot says that the whole team strived to get the most out of the experience, even whilst interpreting complicated concepts such as U-space – a European concept of shared airspace – to safely integrate drones into reality in Europe. CLASS was funded within the framework of the SESAR Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership set up to modernise Europe’s air traffic management system.
CLASS, drones, airspace, tracking, safety, conflict, detection, resolution