The drone issue: A Q&A with Ben Marcus


Keywords: aerial;air;camera;drone;filming;helicopter;nature;photography;sunset;technology;video

Ever since the drone sighting that halted flights at Gatwick airport, drones have had a hard time staying out of the news spotlight.

Over Christmas, Gatwick flights were disrupted for almost two-days due to multiple drones being spotted over the airport. The story developed from there, with one drone becoming multiple, and then news surfaced that maybe there were no drones at all.

Just two weeks later, drone sightings were reported at London’s Heathrow Airport and then at the tail-end of January, drone sightings briefly halted flights at Newark Airport in the US.

There are millions of drones out in the wild and not many of their owners have any sort of licence to fly them. The number of inexperienced users poses a problem for those businesses that see the benefits of drones and want to use them for commercial operations.

Governments are trying to regulate the market, but the task of regulating, managing and tracking drones in even a single country’s airspace is a massive undertaking.

To develop a regulatory framework, regulators such as the FAA are reaching out to companies to help. One of these companies is AirMap.

AirMap is currently developing an out-of-the-box unmanned traffic-management system to help track and coordinate drone operations. We sat down with AirMap’s chairman and co-founder Ben Marcus to discuss how best to regulate the drone market and how to prevent the recurrence of another Gatwick.


What needs to be changed to prevent instances like Gatwick and Heathrow from happening again?


BM: “Much of the reaction to the Gatwick incident has centred on Counter-UAS technology as the answer to all illegal drone operations. But basic regulation and technology can be implemented to help reduce the risks of drones in controlled airspace to a manageable level. Airspace authorities should establish clear regulations that require all drone operators to register themselves and their aircraft, along with a simple, streamlined process for doing so. Clear rules and easy-to-use registration systems provide authorities with appropriate identification information for any individual or entity that wants to operate lawfully within that country or region.”

“These regulatory bodies can then enforce civil-aviation regulations with a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system. A UTM system analyses operator details, flight-path information, real-time air traffic positions and more so as to enable airspace authorities to grant permission-based access to drone operators in a controlled airspace, either manually or programmatically as already implemented by the FAA LAANC program. These measures make it easy for enterprises to coordinate lawful drone operations while minimising any risk to other participants in the airspace system.

“Of course, there is a key role for counter-UAS systems in airport safety, but they are a last resort against criminals. Without the ability to remotely identify good actors from bad ones and manage access amid a change in airspace conditions, these counter systems will be constrained as drone operations scale. Detection must be coupled with UTM intelligence to adequately inform, and ensure the safety and smooth operations of all airports.


As it takes current air traffic control systems years to be implemented, how long until we see a similar airspace management system for drones/unmanned aircraft?


BM: “We saw with the incidents at Gatwick, Heathrow and, most recently, Newark that drones used in the wrong way have the capacity to cause significant disruption to airspace safety, airport operations, and the bottom line. Airports and air-navigation service providers have already begun integrating Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) technologies into existing ATM infrastructure. Last year, we deployed the AirMap UTM Platform across Europe, including Switzerland, Czech Republic and Spain. 2019 will be the year that airspace management systems for unmanned aircraft will flourish further, and we can expect UTM to be widespread by 2020 in light of the events at Gatwick and Heathrow.


How far behind are regulators in managing drones in our airspace? What steps need to be taken in the short- and long-term?


BM: “Many countries have already taken big steps towards developing regulation that enables responsible commercial drone operations for enterprises while maintaining the safety of the airspace. Most recently, India’s Digital Sky reflects a dramatic step forward by regulators to set drone regulation promoting activities monitored and enforced through digital technologies. Digital Sky utilizes core UTM technologies like registration, authorization, and remote ID to enforce civil aviation regulations, specifically their “No Permission, No Take-off” (NPNT) rule. India requires that all UASs be registered and receive permission to fly prior to taking off.


Are the Heathrow and Gatwick instances helping the push for more drone regulation or hindering it?


BM: “Incidents at Gatwick, Heathrow, and Newark have brought forth conversations about drone airspace management on a global stage. At the same time regulators and drone-industry leaders have been working together to develop enabling regulations for drones around the world.

“Programmes like SESAR’s European Network of U-space Demonstrators, the UAS Integration Pilot Program in the United States, and the Future Flight Consortium in Singapore are all working to test and validate regulatory frameworks and technologies that enable commercial drone operations while protecting the skies.”


Do you think these instances will deter more companies from adopting drones for commercial operations?


BM: “In a nutshell, I think these instances were more of a wake-up call for business, regulatory bodies and governments to take responsibility for enabling safe and sustainable drone ecosystems, rather than a deterrent. The financial benefits of drones speak for themselves – PwC, for example, has estimated that they will add £42 billion to the UK economy alone within the next few years. Drones also offer huge potential to organisations across the spectrum of logistics, transport, aviation and the supply chain among other verticals. In the coming years they will be an integral part of their business models, especially when pressure mounts from competitors using similar solutions for their operations. They will undoubtedly see significant benefits upon implementing such a model.

“In the delivery market alone, consumers worldwide want faster and more-convenient delivery, as exemplified by a global study which showed that 88% of consumers are willing to pay for same-day/faster delivery service. Drones and autonomous solutions are the answer to this demand, but in order for the market to adapt to this opportunity, regulations and technological solutions will need to be implemented.


As AirMap deals with local authorities and law enforcement, what has the response been from these parties regarding Gatwick/Heathrow?


BM: “As seen with Gatwick and Heathrow, local law enforcement will become increasingly involved in enforcing drone regulations. This is expected, as national and local authorities share the same goal — to keep the public safe. We’ve seen that collaboration across all levels of government is the main ingredient for creating a healthy drone ecosystem. Truly high-volume drone operations can only happen when local authorities are involved as partners, as they are closest to the complexity of low-altitude airspace.”


What can we do to create a safe, and efficient drone ecosystem both for commercial and for public drone owners?


BM: “The most critical start to creating a safe and efficient drone ecosystem starts with registration. Airspace authorities should establish clear regulations that require all drone operators to register themselves and their aircraft along with a simple, streamlined digital process for doing so. Access toregistration data should be managed by authorised personnel, with appropriate PII protections in place.

Next, authorities should implement systems and technologies that allow for the enforcement of regulations in a way that scales with the demand of the drone industry.

“Mandatory registration can require that a drone operator self-identify in order to get authorized access to fly in controlled airspace near airports. UTM system analyzes operator registration and flight path information to grant authorized access to controlled airspace. With all “good actors” participating in the UTM system, aviation authorities can then visualize, monitor, and track real-time manned and unmanned aircraft telemetry for deconfliction.

“Finally, authorities should complement UTM with Counter-UAS detection systems.

“The integration of Counter-UAS (C-UAS) technology into the UTM system provides the ability to identify all aircraft movements within the controlled airspace. Information related to any aircraft detected by C-UAS is exchanged with the UTM system and remotely identified as either collaborative (registered) or non-collaborative, requiring intervention. C-UAS alone will not be sufficient in determining whether a drone operation requires intervention because not all drone operations at airports are unlawful. Detection must be coupled with UTM intelligence to adequately inform and to ensure the safety and smooth operations of all airports.”


What will the future of unmanned airspace for drones and eVTOLs look like?


BM: “In the next five years, we will continue to see heightened drone adoption by enterprises and public organisations as use causes scale and drones evolve into powerful, light, rugged and fast aircraft capable of operating autonomously, managing heavy payloads, accessing hard-to-reach locations and even transporting people to work.

“The right regulations and technologies in place make it possible to coordinate Extended Visual Line of Sight (EVLOS) and BVLOS flights in complex airspace and over densely populated areas, with multiple aircraft sharing the same airspace and connected to a set of services that enable safe and secure operations.

“And these open, scalable, and resilient technologies that are possible today to coordinate safe, high-scale drone operations are the same solutions that serve as the foundation for UTM-inspired Air Traffic Management for Urban Air Mobility, in which people will be transported short distances in low-altitude airspace, while maintaining communication with other aircraft in the sky and stakeholders on the ground.”