While many drone pilots are still puzzled over what exactly the new EU drone regulations will mean for them, especially with regards to the Specific category, there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes on the next step in unmanned aviation in Europe: U-space. In this article we explain what U-space is and when you will have to deal with it as a drone operator.
Air traffic control for drones
Today, most drones are still controlled by a person on the ground, who has the aircraft in visual line of sight at all times (VLOS) and watches out for other air traffic. But in the future, if at some point not hundreds but hundreds of thousands of drones fly in the air at any given time, drones start to travel considerably longer distances and drones and manned aircraft start using the same airspace, that situation is no longer tenable. There must therefore be something like air traffic control (ATC) for drones, but highly automated. That’s U-space.
You could say that U-space is to drones what traditional air traffic control is to airplanes. The correct term is Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM), but then on the European level. U-space is not so much a closed system, but a set of agreements, protocols, means of communication and standards that together must ensure that the growth of unmanned air traffic will proceed in an orderly manner in the future. Certainly when it comes to busy parts of airspace and above urban areas.
The main goals of U-space are:
- avoiding collisions between unmanned and manned aircraft;
- minimizing the risk to persons and objects on the ground;
- facilitating the orderly conduct of unmanned flights;
- providing information necessary for safe flight operations;
- informing the appropriate authorities when a drone poses a danger to other aircraft or people on the ground due to a disaster;
- ensure compliance with Member States’ security, privacy and environmental requirements.
The basic assumptions are that U-space, like the EU drone regulations, is risk-based (instead of rule-based), that all parties have fair and equal access to the airspace, that the interests of manned aviation are taken into account and that in the long term there will be more possibilities for complex drone operations.
Fundaments of U-space
U-space can only work if there is agreement about the interpretation of all underlying components. That is something that the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has been working hard on in recent years. It goes without saying that numerous parties are involved, including representatives of traditional aviation, developers of unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems and parties with an interest in unmanned aviation. All those involved have their own (sometimes conflicting) interests. EASA’s first proposal on U-space was therefore rejected by various air traffic control organizations.
After a series of intensive consultations in an international context, EASA published a revised ‘Opinion’ on a ‘High-level regulatory framework for the U-space’ in March 2020. This opinion contained a vision of what the building blocks of U-space could look like and who will have which responsibilities in the rollout of U-space. After much deliberation, this Opinion evolved into the final U-space regulatory package which was published on April 22, 2021.
Addition to the Open, Specific and Certified categories
In addition to the Open, Specific and Certified categories, U-space represents an additional set of agreements that should ensure that matters such as flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), advanced flight automation and the integration of drones in manned airspace in an orderly fashion. Urban Air Mobility – the air transport of people and goods above urban areas – will also depend on U-space for orderly operation.
Most ‘regular’ drone pilots in the Open category will not soon have to deal with U-space in their daily activities. This is different for operators in the Specific category who, for example, want to fly in controlled airspace (CTR), or operators in the Certified category that work on automated drone flights, parcel delivery drones and even air taxis. Their drones and VTOLs will have to plug into U-space at some point before they can take to the skies.
Also manned flight will have to deal with U-space, as U-space will be recognized as a new kind of airspace, just like Class A, Class C or Class G airspace. Each aircraft pilot who wishes to fly in Class U airspace will have to be able to connect to the U-space services.
Backbone of U-space
The backbone of U-space will be formed by a common information service, the common information service (CIS). This layer should ensure that service providers and users of U-space can exchange information with each other in a standardized manner. Just say some kind of internet, but specifically intended for U-space data streams.
In addition to the existing air traffic control organizations (in the jargon: air navigation service providers, ANSPs), the service providers that connect to this CIS are also newcomers who focus on providing U-space services to drone operators, the so-called U-space service providers ( USSPs). These parties can be commercial or public in nature. Ultimately, the member states determine how the U-space airspace will be organized and who will be allowed to offer services. To avoid a conflict of interest, a USSP may not also offer CIS services (or vice versa). This has to be done by different parties.
The four building blocks of U-space
The four main building blocks of U-space are: network identification, geo-awareness, air traffic information and flight authorization for drones. At least these four things must be arranged for each area where U-space will apply.
1. Network identification
In order to be able to identify and track all unmanned and manned air traffic, identification is of great importance. Each aircraft is assigned its own unique code, which is continuously communicated to the U-space systems via wireless network technology. Via network identification (network ID), all drone flights that are performed at any time in U-space can be tracked remotely, so that other drones can take this into account in their flight operations.
Geo-awareness is a second important building block, which must ensure that drones do not fly in places where they are not intended to be. Drones will adjust their flight path where necessary on the basis of current airspace information in combination with information on the drone zones filled in by the Member States.
3. Air Traffic Information
Up-to-date air traffic information is essential to avoid trajectory conflicts with manned aircraft. To this end, all manned systems must continuously disclose their location and flight direction to the U-space service provider for that area. It then forwards this information to all drones that are in the same airspace.
4. Flight Authorization
Finally, flight authorization (UAS flight authorisation) is an essential part of U-space. In other words: a drone may only take to the air if the system has approved it, based on current air traffic data, positions of other aircraft and the submitted flight plan.
It goes without saying that all four building blocks must work simultaneously and undisturbed for U-space to function properly. As an extra safety measure, it is conceivable that drones will be equipped with detect & avoid systems, so that a coordinated departure from a flight path can be made as soon as a collision with another airspace user or obstacle on the ground is imminent.
The coverage area of U-space
Each member state will have the power to designate areas where U-space will apply. Looking at the Dutch situation, this will probably initially concern all controlled airspace (CTRs), military low-flying areas and restricted areas (EH-Rs).
At a later stage, it is conceivable that special drone corridors will be created where U-space is mandatory, just like the airspace above port and industrial areas and perhaps all urban areas. Anyone who has read our previous posts about zoning will understand that there is a connection with U-space and the upcoming drone zones.
An interesting fact is that U-space also has consequences for all manned air traffic (especially low-flying General Aviation, such as (trauma) helicopters, sports and gliders, paragliders, etc.): whoever enters U-space has to periodically pass on the position of the aircraft to the relevant USSPs (something that meets with resistance in regular aviation). EASA is still looking at which technology is most suitable for this.
Any drone operator that plans to operate a flight in an area designated as a U-space is required to subscribe to one of the USSPs offering services in that area. A flight authorization must be requested before the flight is operated. The operation may only be performed after this has been issued.
It is still difficult to predict how high those costs will be. For the idea: the Italian UTM provider D-flight charges a rate of 24 euros per drone per year. But perhaps there will also be providers that will charge costs per flight or per kilometer travelled. EASA’s hope is that market forces will eventually cause USSPs to compete with each other, keeping costs low.
It goes without saying that the drones that are flown in U-space are equipped with the right functionality to work with the U-space system to communicate. This includes broadcasting location data, sending information about the operator, receiving flight authorisations, etc. This also applies to manned aircraft operating in the U-space airspace.
Anyone who has kept an eye on the news reports about U-space in recent months knows that quite a few parties are already warming up to take on the role of U-space service provider (USSP). The interests are great: if at some point hundreds of thousands or even millions of drones start using U-space simultaneously, there is a lot to earn from the service fees that can be charged to drone operators.
It is expected that parties such as Airmap, Unifly and Altitude Angel will present themselves as U-space providers right from the start. But it cannot be ruled out that parties such as Google and Amazon will also become involved in this area. Not so much because of the direct income that arises from subscriptions, but because of the data flows that already represent a value in themselves.
In any case, each USSP must offer all four of the mentioned functionality (network identification, geo-awareness, air traffic information and flight authorization) to users. Parts may be outsourced to third parties. The USSPs maintain contact with each other and with the common information service (CIS) through open communication protocols.
Now that the final regulation package has been published, service providers and member states can get to work on making the building blocks of U-space more concrete and making them available to the drone sector. This will be done in four distinctive phases, according to SESAR Joint Undertaking (SESAR JU):
U1: U-space foundation services covering e-registration, e-identification and geofencing.
U2: U-space initial services for drone operations management, including flight planning, flight approval, tracking, and interfacing with conventional air traffic control.
U3: U-space advanced services supporting more complex operations in dense areas such as assistance for conflict detection and automated detect and avoid functionalities.
U4: U-space full services, offering very high levels of automation, connectivity and digitalisation for both the drone and the U-space system.
No rights can be derived from the information in this article. The information in this article is an interpretation of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency Opinion No 01/2020: High-level regulatory framework for the U-space. This article appeared in Dutch on Dronewatch.nl on March 20, 2020. The article was translated and slightly updated on June 3, 2021.