Chris Kucera OneSky

The aviation community is treating drones as second-class citizens, but it’s a problem we can fix

The following guest post was written by Chris Kucera, co-founder of OneSky. OneSky is a global UTM company developing airspace assessment, operations, and traffic management solutions for the aviation industry. 

Chris Kucera, Co-Founder & Head of Strategic Partnerships at OneSky. Photo courtesy of OneSky.

An aviator flying an ultralight, a power parachute, or a hang-glider can fly over parks, schools, and infrastructure without question, yet a drone delivering critical medical supplies can’t.

That’s a problem, and it is one example of the double standards in airspace regulations for unmanned versus manned aircraft. And it’s not just a problem for drone pilots and business owners, but it could mean lost lives and unnecessary hardships.

It’s time for authorities and the aerospace industry to change outdated rules and educate the public on what’s really at stake when a drone flies overhead, while adopting new systems and a new mindset that stops making drones second-class citizens in the airspace.

Drones offer tremendous value to society. We’ve seen drones play critical roles in firefighting, policing, and search and rescue.  Delivery drones are helping to democratize access to lifesaving medical supplies all around the globe. Automated drone inspections take care of dangerous jobs in dangerous places where lives are lost every year.  In the future, advanced aerial vehicles may provide a safe and environmentally clean transportation option that eliminates road traffic and brings communities together.  

As drones become more and more valuable, it’s time for a shift in mindset.  As an aviation community, we need to move away from the idea that drones are pesky, second-class citizens, and start thinking of them as life-saving tools. If we want to realize the benefits that drones offer, we need to move forward, and more quickly, on allowing drones to integrate safely into the airspace.   

Drones need fair and equal access to airspace

A safe airspace requires that all the participants are aware of other aircraft sharing the space. That’s difficult when all of the flyers aren’t using the same tools.  

In the U.S., manned aviation is required to use ADS-B in many regions of controlled airspace. Beyond that, they are also seen by existing radar networks. Meanwhile, drones can’t take advantage of the same tools and can’t be seen by existing radar or ADS-B receivers. In addition drone pilots aren’t allowed to access the air traffic information from the existing radar and ADS-B networks. That creates a problem where drones can’t see manned aircraft (and manned aircraft can’t see drones) because tools are limited by regulation.

Without access to the same tools, drones aren’t on an equal playing field. It also puts the onus on drones to track other aircraft – without requiring the manned aircraft to also keep track of the drones. Again, that makes drones second-class citizens in the airspace and slows down the process of safe integration.

OneSky has deployed a UTM prototype with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. Photo courtesy of OneSky.

How UTM can bridge the gap

At OneSky, we believe that industry can bridge the inequality that exists between manned and unmanned aircraft with cooperative Unmanned Traffic Management systems (UTM), a digital system that mimics ATM for low level unmanned aircraft. UTM is a network-based system where the drone’s position is shared from their Ground Control System (GCS). With cooperative UTM systems to fill the surveillance gap, there is no need to compromise safety in any way as drones join other aircraft in the NAS.

UTM is a complex framework of technologies, tools, and regulations. Remote ID for drones — designed to solve the problem of communicating a drone’s position — is one of the first UTM concepts to be regularized in the U.S. with the publication of the Remote-ID ruling at the beginning of 2021. 

The Federal Aviation Administration chose Broadcast Remote ID, or Broadcast-RID, which allows security agencies to see an unmanned aircraft as it enters a restricted airspace. But with a range of only 400-500 feet, it doesn’t allow manned and unmanned aircraft to see a drone soon enough to change course and contribute to airspace safety.

What’s even worse is that drones need to share their position using RID, but manned aviation does not. This is also a double standard that is only justified by something called “safety by self preservation”. This is a concept that tries to show manned activity as inherently more safe because the pilot doesn’t want to destroy him/herself in the act of violence against others.

Network Remote ID, or NET-RID, is being used across Europe and other countries, and would allow drones to connect to a RID UTM Service Supplier. This would enable coverage reaching across the country, which could allow all airspace stakeholders to see not just the drone overhead but along an entire flight path and while understanding the future flight intent. 

Using a combination of the available technologies to develop cooperative UTM systems – and requiring all flyers to participate  — will serve all stakeholders in the airspace and ensure that all flyers are treated equally.  When ATC and airspace stakeholders are able to understand drone and manned aircraft missions in terms of their purpose and importance as well as their entire flight path, safety is increased and equitable deconfliction enabled.

OneSky demonstrates its UTM portal, integrating multiple UTM service suppliers to enable safe & efficient access for all drone users. Photo courtesy of OneSky.

The benefits (and risks) of drone missions

In order for the aviation community to welcome drone integration and move towards a more equitable airspace, we need to understand the risk and benefit of drones more fully.  Our airspace regulation systems aren’t set up to measure benefit accurately, but there is no doubt that — as communities understand and experience drone capabilities more — they’ll want the advantages that drone technology brings.

Consider not only the potential safety hazards when we do allow drones to fly, but the potential lives lost when we don’t allow drones to fly.

As a manned aviator, I have always valued the aviation community, learning from other pilots, and working together to encourage and educate the next generation of flyers.  The tools exist to create a safe, equitable and fully integrated airspace.  Once drones are integrated into the airspace, drone pilots can join that community and all flyers will be able to embrace the safety culture of aviation.  

-By Chris Kucera

Chris Kucera is the Co-Founder of OneSky and has more than 20 years of experience in the aerospace industry. He is an ACJA Board Member and also works with various organizations, such as GUTMA, ASTM, ICAO, AUVSI, the Small UAV Coalition and more, to understand the state-of-the-art in drone technology and keep up to date on regulatory progress. He is also a commercially rated multi-engine aircraft pilot.

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