Heliguy was a key delivery partner in a world-first demonstration to test how drones and traditional aircraft can safely share the same airspace.
The ground-breaking live-action scenarios were staged at Manchester Airport on Wednesday to offer a glimpse into ‘a new and exciting future’ of air-traffic management (ATM).
Codenamed Operation Zenith, the special event was led by aviation technology company Altitude Angel, as well as Manchester Airport and NATS – which provides safe and efficient air-traffic services and innovative solutions to UK and international airports, airlines and governments. The event was supported by a series of government, industry and academic participants, including DJI, Vodafone, the National Police Air Service, DEFRA and North East England-based Heliguy.
Eight demonstrations showcasing drones working in conjunction with traditional aircraft movements were played out at the airport and live-streamed to specially-invited guests at the Royal Aeronautical Society, in London.
The event has been described as the first steps towards understanding some of the challenges and solutions of integrating drones into controlled airspace.
Richard Parker, founder of Altitude Angel, said: “Operation Zenith showcased just what the industry can do when it collaborates, rather than competes, to get access to the airspace.”
Where Heliguy came in
Heliguy was specially selected to support Chinese technology giant DJI with its AeroScope remote identification technology, which was used during Operation Zenith to demonstrate how it can be a key element in an unmanned traffic management (UTM) system that safely integrates drones and traditional aircraft into the same airspace.
Heliguy is an AeroScope specialist and set up a G8 antenna for Wednesday’s demonstration. In simple terms, AeroScope monitors the movements of drones in a certain area in real time. It transmits basic information about the UAVs which are flying in its range, including serial number, speed, direction, home position and make and model.
Kevin Morton, Heliguy’s head of technical works, said: “It was a massive coup and a fantastic opportunity for Heliguy to be involved with a lot of key players in the industry, such as Altitude Angel and NATS, to create this fantastic network of lots of different technologies to ensure the safety of UK airspace. Operation Zenith was the first step towards a new and exciting future involving the integration of manned and unmanned aviation.
“The event went really well. It went without hitch and everything came together. DJI came to us to provide AeroScope support as we are a specialist in this field and DJI knew from previous dealings with us that we know our stuff when it comes to AeroScope.”
AeroScope is already in use at airports, major public arenas and large public gatherings around the world. Because it receives signals directly from drones using their existing communications link, rather than relying on a wireless network or special transmitters, it is ideal for capturing critical airspace information for a UTM system to process.
Brendan Schulman, DJI Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs, said: “Wednesday’s test shows that DJI’s AeroScope can be a valuable part of a UTM system by monitoring and tracking airborne drones around sensitive locations, reliably and rapidly feeding that information to an integrated airspace manager, and enabling a flexible model that adapts instantly to new information about aerial operations.
“DJI was proud to contribute to this broad-based effort to find smart solutions for opening up controlled airspace to the benefits of drones.”
Purpose of Operation Zenith
The event’s key players believe that no UTM solution is complete without the ability to integrate deeply and seamlessly into existing ATM systems and processes. The organisers also set out how cooperative and uncooperative drone traffic (and potential risks) could be detected and mitigated.
The solution showcased on Wednesday is designed for deployment by Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSP) and provides a fully configurable, standards-compliant platform for ANSP use. It will be powered using Altitude Angel’s GuardianUTM Airspace Management Operating System O/S, a purpose-built platform which allows the secure data exchange between ATM systems and UTM providers and is designed for deployment at the national level by an ANSP or aviation authority.
Mr Parker was delighted with how the GuardianUTM O/S performed at the demonstration, saying it ‘successfully managed a busy and complex airspace’ and it is ‘now the most fully-featured UTM system in existence, capable of acting as the vital middleware layer in the emerging drone ecosystem today’.
The demonstrations – described by the organisers as unique to other drone demos observed worldwide – set out to showcase numerous aspects of integrated airspace, against the challenging backdrop of a live and fully-operational airport. There were:
Realistic use of airspace: To date, most demos – particularly of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations – take place in segregated airspace. Operation Zenith wanted to show true integration, not doing anything different or special for the introduction of drone traffic in an otherwise sensitive area. This is why a busy, international airport was chosen.
Featuring both cooperative and uncooperative traffic: Organisers believe that no UTM solution can be considered complete without due attention being given to the uncooperative airspace picture. That’s why GuardianUTM O/S has real capabilities to integrate and connect with numerous detection systems to properly cater for the threat and challenges posed by uncooperative unmanned traffic.
Demonstrate integration with ATM: Both from a technology and an operational procedures perspective, drones have immense potential to transform lives and revolutionise businesses, but there are many issues blocking their routine and common use – particularly beyond visual line of sight and fully-automated flights.
A key reason for this is separation: The ability to ensure that a drone doesn’t cause any harm to other air traffic, especially manned aviation. Although various solutions have been proposed, these are often restricted to sensors on the drone or require participation from multiple manufacturers to adopt a common system of hardware which does not scale well or offer much room for innovation.
Simon Newton, of On The Kitchen Table, who compered Operation Zenith, said: “This was the world’s first demonstration of integrating drones with manned aviation in a live, unsegregated airport setting. It was exciting.
“It was a very important demonstration of how the future will pan out with commercial-use drones because for the industry to go anywhere there has got to be integration with commercial aircraft.
“At Operation Zenith, several systems were used, such as AeroScope and GaurdianUTM O/S, as well as various drones. Within the confines of simulated environments, we tried to make it as real as possible to show that this is potentially the future and that the UK is leading the way in unmanned traffic management.”
Scenario One – On-airfield Delivery
This scenario featured an on-airfield drone flight which crossed active traffic paths to deliver equipment having gained electronic flight approval via GuardianUTM from air traffic control (ATC).
This scenario was designed to demonstrate the safe use of unmanned air vehicles to deliver parts or equipment without causing disruption in a busy, complex and dynamic airfield environment. Operation Zenith demonstrated the end-to-end process, including defining workflows for pre-approved operations, on-demand initiation, ATC approval and providing situational awareness.
Scenario Two – Runway Threshold Inspection
This featured a drone operator carrying out a remote inspection of the airfield runway threshold.
The scenario was designed to demonstrate the end-to-end process, including defining workflows for pre-approved operations, on-demand initiation, ATC approval and providing situational awareness.
Scenario Three – The Linear Infrastructure Inspection
The BVLOS scenario featured a drone flight to carry out a railway-track inspection under BVLOS conditions within the Manchester Airport controlled zone (CTR).
This scenario showcased a successful, safe drone flight following an effective flight planning and approval process and was designed to demonstrate ATC situational awareness, and de-confliction with other aircraft. Observers saw how the platform can be used to define approval workflows that enable and assist BVLOS operations while providing the situational awareness to ATC of nearby drone operations and movements necessary to provide a safe operating environment.
Scenario Four – Atmospheric Survey (Visual Line of Sight)
As a commercial operation, it is vital that the crew has visibility of any factor that may affect or impede the flight.
Such dynamic and fluid conditions need to be communicated to the drone pilot in sufficient time to mitigate any potential risks caused if the drone remains. Through a series of events, it was shown how GuardianUTM O/S and ATC procedures can forewarn an operator of a developing situation and suggest risk mitigations.
Scenario Five – Commercial Visual Line of Site Operation
The commercial user within visual line of sight (VLOS) scenario featured a commercial user flying a drone under VLOS conditions within Manchester Airport’s CTR.
This scenario aimed to show how a user is able to use an app like Drone Assist to check air and ground hazards and use its fly-now function to allow other airspace users and an airport of their activities.
Scenario Six – Site Survey (VLOS)
The site survey within visual line of sight (VLOS) scenario featured an FRZ-approved drone flight to undertake a site survey under VLOS conditions within Manchester Airport’s flight restricted zone.
Scenario Seven – Safeguarding
The safeguarding scenario featured the detection of unauthorised drones as they enter a pre-identified section of airspace to test Operation Zenith’s safeguarding solution.
This scenario was designed to demonstrate how a safeguarding solution can be effectively integrated into a common platform to allow ATC and other organisations to enhance the visibility of potential hazards while not restricting approved flights.
Scenario Eight – Airspace Management
Operation Zenith was designed to demonstrate the value of providing a complete, composite view of the airspace using a range of ATM and UTM sensory sources including radar, safeguarding, hook-on EC, and ground control station/autopilot connectivity.
This scenario was designed to demonstrate that an airspace management tooling platform can successfully invoke an airspace restriction in a defined area and automatically disseminate actions to all active and affected unmanned traffic.
One of the slides which was shown to the audience at The Royal Aeronautical Society, in London, was entitled The Future, and it set out a vision for how drones and traditional aircraft can share the same airspace. The key points were:
- Much can be achieved within existing regulatory frameworks;
- 120 partners, 20 companies, ATC and manned aviation fully integrated into GaurdianUTM O/S;
- De-confliction of traffic via multiple communications channels;
- A flourishing drone services ecosystem built atop GaurdianUTM O/S, deployed by NATS.
A view from Altitude Angel
Founder Richard Parker said: “Around airports and in busy, congested airspace there are real security, privacy and safety concerns, and GuardianUTM O/S demonstrated how it can be utilised in not just one – but eight, different, realistic scenarios ranging from airspace authorisation, through to advanced, automated de-confliction – the process of ensuring aircraft don’t meet each other at the same point and time in the air.
“We are delighted that we were able to work with all our delivery partners who shared in our common vision that ANSPs around the world should look to encourage greater drone adoption and use, by deploying a national capability that fosters innovation and can truly create a fair and equitable foundation UTM system, and we wish to thank everyone involved, without whom, the demonstrations would not have been possible.
“We are very pleased with the performance of GuardianUTM O/S, our airspace management solution, during Operation Zenith. Designed for deployment by ANSPs who want to offer the types of capabilities demonstrated on Wednesday, the software successfully managed a busy and complex airspace, fully-automated, during a series of scenarios designed to be representative of real-world situations that the industry hasn’t previously tackled.
“We believe GuardianUTM O/S is now the most fully-featured UTM system in existence, capable of acting as the vital middleware layer in the emerging drone ecosystem today, bringing together aviation and technology stakeholders around core capabilities including registration and identity, automated decision-making, remote drone control, real-time communications, ATM integration and even rogue drone detection.
“We look forward to supporting NATS’ expansion plans as it rolls-out the Airspace User Portal (AUP) powered by GuardianUTM.”
Comments from Operation Zenith
Mark Watson, head of UTM Service Integration at NATS, said: “Operation Zenith has been about understanding the first steps towards some of the challenges of safely integrating multiple drone operations in controlled airspace and looking at how some of the technology can help enable this. Developing this will help the drone industry grow and potentially result in valuable drone services being established sooner rather than later.”
Alastair Muir, NATS Safety Director, said: “Operation Zenith has been an outstanding success in bringing together the manned and unmanned aviation industry to shine a light on our vision for the future of aviation. NATS is committed to working towards creating a foundation service to ensure the safe and efficient use of airspace. With more than 25 key players from across the aviation industry cooperating on this project, it has been possible for us to create a safe environment in which drones and commercial aircraft are able to co-exist safely in controlled airspace.
“From distributing medicines to delivering parcels, investigating crash sites to inspecting industrial installations, drones have a great deal to offer and we believe that carving up the skies to offer commercial drones a slice of segregated airspace is not the answer. From our perspective, allowing visible UAVs safe access into controlled, integrated airspace is the best way forward, both for the drone industry itself and for aviation as a whole.
“With the number of drone-related airspace incidents on the rise, it’s essential that we take steps now in order to create a safe environment for UAVs to be integrated with manned aircraft and factor their presence into redesigned airspace that’s able to cope with the increasing demands of modern aviation in our busy skies.”
Paul Harling, a VLOS pilot at the event, said: “There has been a lot of bad press about this issue, so I think the only way we will start to dispel some of that is by having a coordinated approach. The UTM ability brings all these users together to speak as one.”
PC Jaymes Smirthawaite, of Greater Manchester Police, said: “We became involved in Operation Zenith as we have started trialling the use of drones to assist in front-line policing. We were asked if we would be interested in getting involved in UTM and I saw this as an important part of our trial use of drones. Going forward, the likelihood is that drones won’t go away from front-line policing; rather, they will be used in some capacity on a daily basis, and as the rest of the economy develops, the use of drones for the emergency services, transferring parcels and structure assessments will grow. This means that the airspace needs to be managed so that there is no interference between these parties and we can continue to use drones safely.”
He added that Operation Zenith provided him with the perfect opportunity to develop a better understanding of UTM in the Greater Manchester area.
Christian Struwe, DJI Head of Public Policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said: “DJI is committed to innovating new technology to help ensure drones remain a safe and beneficial addition to the airspace. That commitment is clear with DJI’s AeroScope system, and we are excited to see how AeroScope’s capabilities can support a robust UTM platform. Altitude Angel’s vision of a common platform for a wide range of drone and traditional aircraft operations is an exciting step forward, and we are pleased to work with other Operation Zenith partners to bring this vision to life. This shows the way forward for UTM and the EU wide U-space initiative.”
Chris Wild, Head of Airfield Operations at Manchester Airport, said: “We are delighted how the demonstration came together to showcase how manned and unmanned aviation can be undertaken collaboratively within controlled airspace.
“Manchester Airport welcomes 28million passengers a year and handles over 200,000 air transport movements and therefore drone use, regulation and technological mitigation has been a real focus for us over the last few years. As an airport, we are fully supportive of cooperative drone operations and we are committed to influencing regulation and embracing new technology that allows piloted and unmanned aviation to take place in harmony.
“Zenith demonstrated how this can be achieved and as an airport we were excited to be part of and witness the interoperability across all the required elements of drone mitigation.”
Helping to make the event happen
The Transport Systems Catapult
University of Southampton
Paul Fassam Geomatics – Chartered Land Surveyors
University of Manchester
National Police Air Service