Advancing the adoption of unmanned aircraft systems to improve air mobility

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In 2022 there were two very distinct and well-attended events that focused on key issues relating to remotely-piloted and unmanned aircraft systems: RPAS 2022 and DRONE ENABLE 2022.  There are numerous benefits to be derived from globally-harmonized UAS standards and practices, for both governments and the industry. These annual events provide excellent opportunities to drive consensus and progress with the hopes of expanding the civil and humanitarian potential of new model aircraft. This article provides a deep dive into the discussions and outcomes from both events.


Remotely-piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) Symposium

The theme of the 2022 RPAS symposium was “To certify or not to certify.” Participants focused their attention on the latest issues concerning the certification of both operators and aircraft in the RPAS domain. Panel sessions addressed related airworthiness Standards and Recommend Practices (SARPs) that were recently adopted by the ICAO Council, as well as the proposed flight operations SARPs for Annex 6 (Operation of Aircraft), Part IV, which are now out for State review and comment.

ICAO Secretary General Juan Carlos Salazar provided opening remarks at the Remotely-piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) Symposium that took place at ICAO’s Montréal Headquarters in November 2022.

In his opening remarks, ICAO Secretary General Juan Carlos Salazar drew attention to some of the key issues now arising due to the pace of regulatory innovation in the face of the major technological advances now arising.

“When we think about current and future RPAS capabilities, whether they be cargo deliveries, humanitarian operations, or border and fisheries or other monitoring operations, it’s important to pause to consider if, and how, all required regulatory needs are being met,” he emphasized. “We can all see the inspiring technological advancements being realized by industry. So what about the regulatory framework? Can we certify RPAS? And the operators?  Can we license the remote pilots? What else is needed? C2 Link and detect and avoid technologies are critical. Vertiports will be essential for some new entrants, and of course, automation is advancing in spectacular fashion. But how will each of these be certified?”

During his Day 1 Keynote, Mr. Philippe Martou, Director of Aviation Services for the World Food Programme, told RPAS 2022 event participants that UAS operations in support of humanitarian operations are international by nature and that humanitarian UAS services, including those carried out on a beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) basis, need globally-harmonized regulations.

Martou also underlined ICAO’s role in providing a forum for exchanging UAS regulations and ways to evolve the ICAO model regulations in support of States’ regulation capacities.

ICAO has UAS implementation packages or ‘iPacks’ which are available to help States implement effective oversight of UAS operations in their territories, and it is working now in conjunction with the WFP and other UN agencies to help coordinate related efforts and programmes to rapidly expand global UAS humanitarian capacities.

RPAS 2022 Day 1 featured panel discussions on Annex 6, Part IV developments, critical systems such as the C2 Link and Detect and Avoid for RPAS operations, and related certification issues. The first of these provided background information on Annex 6 Part IV, and reminded that it was sent to States for comments last August. They were further informed that it would be applicable to the certified category of RPAS Operations under Annex 8 (Airworthiness of Aircraft).

The obvious differences, but also commonalities between conventional aviation and RPAS, were pointed out in these discussions, such as requirements concerning operators, flight crew, and Search and Rescue applications, and it was noted how Detect and Avoid can mitigate the absence of a pilot on board who normally ensures separation with other traffic by applying the principle of See and Avoid.

Finally, it was underlined that oversight activities are similar to conventional aviation and can be achieved through various elements such as the RPAS Operator Certificate, SMS, C2 Link service provision oversight, and appropriate documentation.

When it comes to certifying RPAS and their components, RPAS 2022 participants were reminded that spectrum is a scarce resource and that spectra beyond traditional aeronautical bands can pose safety concerns. It was also highlighted that SARPS provide confidence for the industry to invest and scale.

Further safety issues were highlighted in a review of a UAS Standard Type Certificate by the CAA of Israel, with the main takeaways being that some key gaps in the current standards need to be addressed, and that certain UAS system elements, such as communications links, will need to be certified separately. It was noted that technology, design, automation, and other factors are driving the discussion and decisions aviation looks ahead, and that future standards need to be flexible and appropriately calibrated to the potential safety risks.

The Day 2 Keynote was presented by Marc Allen, Chief Strategy Officer for Boeing. His remarks underscored that the industry is using new approaches to realize the aviation of the future and that this future will be digital, sustainable and autonomous. It was also stressed that advanced air mobility (AAM) would be significantly different from anything encountered to date in conventional aviation.

Allen noted that autonomy would be integrated more and more into the entire aviation ecosystem, highlighting the need for appropriate regulation, certification, and oversight to ensure that the safety levels are kept at the appropriate level. He added that robust safety management of all aspects of AAM operations would be key to ensuring public trust and supporting AAM industry growth, underlining the need to work toward meeting commercial airliner safety levels.

The Day 2 panel 1 on certification drew attention to the fact that the Chicago Convention is a longstanding trust framework for mutual recognition of airworthiness certificates among Member States. They underlined that AAM aircraft and UAS, in general, would benefit from an evolution of the airworthiness framework and that it should evolve to be risk-based and performance-based.

It was discussed how the deployment of autonomous craft would be dependent on the certification of their autonomy, and that the airworthiness and other related frameworks have gaps to address. An interesting point was also raised on the need for AAM/UAS to take human factors and performance into consideration during the certification process of new aircraft and systems, and it was noted that Standards Development Organisations (SDOs) have a critical role to play in many areas.

Day 2’s second panel focused on the issues that need to be resolved for cross-border operations with fit-for-purpose certification requirements in the near term, and how these can be evolved into a global solution.

It was noted that there are aspirations for smaller UAS to conduct cross-border operations, but that these are now limited by a lack of harmonized global/international provisions on certification.

In the Day 1 Panel on Critical systems, panelists stressed the key role of ICAO to help States develop regulatory frameworks and oversight capacities for UAS by developing a fit-for-purpose set of requirements that would be risk- and performance-based, and provide the basic elements to enable a legal framework including the necessary principles and definitions. The Direct Submission process was identified as a potential means to bring regulated packages to ICAO to evolve the airworthiness framework on this basis.

In the afternoon panels on the certification of ‘flying taxis’, discussions centered on the need for harmonization, and that ICAO has to ensure that including by building capacity with a common nomenclature, and agreeing on the criteria for safety, personnel training and licensing.  The Panel didn’t identify a pressing need for provisions for entry into the market of piloted AAM aircraft, but stressed that more would be required for the next evolution and for autonomous operations – especially given the different aircraft designs.

In the second afternoon panel, panelists discussed the challenges faced by regulators in certifying autonomous systems for the operational environment, including the lack of global standards for software approval and validation; completion criteria for autonomy; managing diversity and complexity; and different aircraft functional architectures.

It was noted that building trust is a key priority to enabling autonomous operations and that this could be achieved by building firsthand experience into certification requirements, leveraging flight safety data, employing risk-based planning to optimize the environment, and through appropriate human involvement using performance-based requirements from performance-based standards.

The concluding Day 3 of RPAS 2022 featured four further panels on RPAS Panel lessons learned; the status of vertiport infrastructure; RPAS standards development; and recent contributions to this area of work from the aviation research community.

The lessons learned panel stressed how it became clear early on that addressing RPAS operations was a mammoth undertaking, that “we cannot boil the ocean,” and so the work and solutions had to be developed gradually.

The RPAS Panel focuses on international instrumental flight rule (IFR)  operations, and in that context, its further lessons included that internal coordination and communication within ICAO are important, but the outside world is paramount, and that robust and open discussion with other expert groups at ICAO result in added trust and constructive outcomes.

Building on the first set of foundational SARPs already developed by the panel, it was noted that much more work was needed to answer questions such as if autonomy is the next step or advanced automation, and what the related priorities should be. In this regard, the panel stressed that its main lesson learned to date was the importance of listening and talking to others. Further lessons were discussed on how to harmonize cross-border and high-seas operations, and how to address AAM based on feedback from innovators and operators, the Assembly, and Member States.

The vertiports panel discussed how everyone will want to be part of the AAM future, and that varying infrastructures are foreseen, including at airports and for both ground-based and elevated (building top) urban environments. Panelists stressed the need for open and continuous communication and interaction with all stakeholders, including local authorities, for considerations on land use regulations. They noted that consultation with the industry and general public would be vital in order to create trust, and that key challenges would include vertiport capacity management, ATM integration with clear priorities and operating procedures, and the economic aspects.

The RPAS standards development session heard from SDOs on their work in support of UAS activities, including the impressive amount of technical standards published covering a range of topics including RPAS, UAS, and eVTOLS, among others.

It took note that there are a lot of ongoing activities in the UAS domain, that more work is expected in the future, and that intensified collaboration among SDOs with industry and ICAO is to everyone’s benefit. Finally, it was highlighted that the lack of a global AAM CONOPS poses constraints for SDOs, and that ICAO is perfectly suited to develop a consensus around one.

The final panel on aviation research discussed the recent agreement to support innovation in aviation between ICAO and the International Forum for Aviation Research (IFAR). This led to IFAR’s development of a scientific assessment of urban air mobility, which will provide ICAO with a comprehensive overview of the current state of play of UAM, and potential considerations for future work.

The panel highlighted that the IFAR Scientific Assessment is neutral, and recognized that a lot of research might still be required. It was also highlighted that IFAR could be a great platform to investigate open questions that ICAO might wish to obtain more information on.


DRONE ENABLE 2022

The theme of the 2022 DRONE ENABLE event was “Learning from the past for a better future.” The 2022 Drone Enable Request for Information (RFI) asked speakers to share their lessons learned from UAS traffic management (UTM) trials and implementations. The symposium also offered an opportunity to discuss challenges pertaining to international unmanned aircraft flights that are not operating between international airports, bypassing customs and inspection systems.

The audience also learned about UAS environmental impacts, humanitarian operations, and a second RFI on data requirements necessary to support UTM.

In his welcome remarks, ICAO Council President Salvatore Sciacchitano emphasized that “we are here to listen and learn about what you are innovating, and to help all of us explore together how we can be rapid, diligent, and holistic in our efforts to integrate the latest designs and capabilities into the advanced air mobility ecosystem.”

The President also reiterated that “in such a dynamic and innovative area of activity, with such a continuous flow of new and emerging ideas and technology, the industry and regulatory communities must work very closely together to realize the full potential of current developments.”

The Drone Enable keynote address for 2022 was provided by the Honorable Kwaku Ofori Asiamah, Minister of Transport, Ghana. He drew attention to the fact that UAS require timely regulation and made a strong point about the responsibility of ICAO, and its Member States, to develop and harmonize standards and regulations which enable greater levels of UAS integration around the world.

By doing so, he underscored the benefits of further technology investment and innovation, along with economic growth and new social capacities. And he also noted that, while efforts move forward, we must also recognize the large community of stakeholders connected to UAS.

The Minister especially appreciated current societal benefits in the medical sphere, highlighting reductions in mortality rates enabled by the delivery of medicines and other life-saving medical products into remote and inaccessible areas.

Subsequent DRONE ENABLE Day 1 sessions focused around ATM/UTM integration, facilitating UAS operations, and UAS and AAM lifecycle emissions. It was highlighted during these discussions that UAS operations are now greatly outnumbering traditional aviation operations, and that UTM will need to safely handle the growing demand and complexities through solutions such as dynamic flight planning and automated decision-making.

Further points were made in these exchanges concerning how UTM will be integrating greater and greater numbers of third-party service and data suppliers, and that oversight, contractual issues, and on-boarding would be key to assuring the safety and availability of these services.

ATM and UTM integration will evolve through the short, medium, and long-term horizons.  At the moment, much world demand is for operations in low risk/low altitude/segregated airspace.  ATM/UTM integration cannot happen overnight.  As integration evolves, new standards for separation and capabilities such as file and fly need to be integrated.  Further decisions regarding ATM/UTM integration will hinge upon the evolution of new, some call, “Digital Flight Rules.”

While UTM/ATM integration will happen in phases, UAS integration creates a ripple effect throughout the airspace and ATM ecosystems.  Except in the most elementary and low-risk operations, UTM cannot be considered independently from ATM.  There is a great deal of interplay between airspace stakeholders.  There needs to be an awareness of all airspace user needs and a trust framework and confidence in the system.

When asked about the transition from segregation to integration, operators highlighted the need to determine equipage requirements to enable the cooperative and digital awareness of everyone operating in the airspace.  In fact, cooperative airspace for all users was a point repeated throughout the conference.

Day 2 of DRONE ENABLE began with a keynote from Mr. Andreas Boschen, Executive Director of the SESAR 3 Joint Undertaking, followed by the first of a series of discussions on RFI TOPIC 1 – Experiences and best practices from the deployment/implementation of UTM systems or services.

During the TOPIC-1 exchanges, it was stressed that there are an impressive number of UTM implementation activities taking place around the world, in various stages of deployment. Participants recognized that the common thread throughout these projects is the wide variation in environments, requirements, types of operations, airspace users, and security requirements. Also still to be addressed are the acceptable levels of safety for the various operations to be considered.

Accordingly, it was agreed that there would be a need for flexibility moving forward. In some States, for example, military stakeholders maintain requirements to be able to monitor 100% of unmanned aircraft operations and to be advised of the associated intention. One element of this equation that everyone agreed upon was the need for electronic processing of operational authorization requests to meet the demand.

Also concerning RFI TOPIC-1, it was highlighted how deployment projects are shedding new light on the pros and cons of strategic and tactical de-confliction, including the associated constraints. Strategic de-confliction relies upon operators entering their operational plans, and the greater the number of plans, the more effective the de-confliction will be.

Likewise, tactical de-confliction requires sensors, both ground-based and airborne. Participants discussed how DAA sensor networks are expensive, and that finding the right balance for safety and capital efficiency will take much more work. Another challenge discussed under TOPIC-1 was the presence of emergency services and security aircraft operations at low levels. These are time-critical operations, meaning that provisions for de-confliction with UAS must be carefully developed and implemented.

During several TOPIC-1 presentations, safety was a common priority highlighted, as well as the potential cost-benefit of implementing fully cooperative airspace. It was noted that a cooperative approach could also minimize special designation requests for airspace volumes for UAS operations. With respect to ongoing and future UTM development and implementation, it was discussed that this would need to be incremental, moving from simple and low-risk operations to ones of greater endurance, complexity, and distance.

Although presenters generally agreed that a helpful convergence of UTM approaches is now happening, they also stressed that harmonization and integration with ATM has hard limits if the current airspace users are unwilling to appropriately equip their aircraft to operate in a cooperative airspace environment. This reluctance could instead pose fragmentation risks as opposed to promoting convergence benefits. Importantly in terms of directing resources most efficiently, it was acknowledged and appreciated that the implementation and deployment work now being presented provides a consistent narrative of progress, and one which is helping to identify and bring focus to many specific developmental challenges.

Day 2 participants also received an overview of the UAS Model Regulations and the UAS for Humanitarian Aid and Emergency Response (U-AID) materials developed by ICAO. The model regulations allow States to regulate UAS operations that remain outside of the IFR international arena, while the complementary U-AID provides additional guidance specifically developed for humanitarian aid emergency response operations.

Participants explored how the ICAO Model UAS Regulations serve as a template to permit States to implement or supplement their national UAS regulations for specific and open categories, and that ICAO’s UAS course offerings are designed to train regulators on the requirements of UAS operations.. These courses also raise the awareness of both regulators and operators on associated complexities to assure safety.

They also learned about the related ICAO iPacks which collate ICAO subject matter experts, training, tools, and documents into distinct training packages to help State authorities implement safe UAS operation, and that several of these have already been deployed very successfully in some States to accelerate the uptake of UAS regulations and operations.

For their last Day 2 engagement, participants benefitted from a joint ICAO, UNICEF and WFP panel discussion on the new roles for UAS in humanitarian operations. These discussions highlighted the extreme diversity of operations this category covers, the lack of current regulations and harmonization to guide them, and the lack of mutual recognition between States which results.

They also underscored how the WFP, UNICEF and ICAO are currently closely collaborating to enhance local capacities and operations on the basis of two related MOUs, and that more data and feedback from the initial operations is currently needed. Particular challenges relating to flight rules remain to be addressed, because neither IFR or VFR are suitable, in addition to a facilitation framework to deal with the multiple level of stakeholders involved.

It was further stressed that innovation and flexibility at the regulatory level are required to safely accompany the innovation taking place in our skies, and that examples such as the new Malawi-based African Drone and Data Academy provides a good example of how to address current capacity challenges and optimize these new aircraft and operations for the full benefit of civil society.

Day 3 of Drone Enable 2022 began with two-panel discussions on RFI TOPIC-2 – UTM Data Requirements. These discussed a diversity of use cases that highlighted the need for a variety of data sets, some of which are common for each type of operation, such as weather, obstacles, population density, and security restrictions, while others are specific to the user. Once again, the need for standardization was underlined throughout these engagements, as well as the need to focus on whether or not new standards be prescriptive or more flexible, whether or not all data types need to be standardized, and who should be developing them.

It was stressed that there is a continuum of risk related to the potential spectrum of UAS operations, and that not all risk levels require highest fidelity data.  In some cases, for example, it was noted that imposing the highest standard is not always necessary and can render some operations unnecessarily cost-prohibitive.

Participants also heard again about the pre-eminence of overall system trust and security, which many testing iterations are required as these systems evolve, and that security considerations must be baked in at the time of design rather than sprinkled on later after the system is deployed.

Ultimately it was acknowledged that UTM and ATM will further integrate, that both systems use high quantities of data, and that the current challenge and opportunity is to optimize the use of data from both to improve performance and reduce costs. Two afternoon panels on Day 3 of the event focused on The Digital Road to UTM Implementation, and AAM Initial Concept of Operations (CONOPS).

The first of these recognized that data is essential to aviation and that continuously increasing rates of digitalization will automate specific tasks and, eventually, all AAM functions. It was discussed that this will lead to a paradigm shift from a human- to an operation-centric approach. Moving from analog to digital aviation was also acknowledged to require an enabling regulatory framework that can ensure interoperability, and it was emphasized that data quality reliability and trust were essential to establish a balance between user requirements and data provision.

Participants commented that in parallel to data reliability, efforts must stay focused on the data format technical aspects and establishing the right framework to enable information exchange with interoperability. Here again, the roles and responsibilities must be defined, as well as the financial aspects.

New entrants to aviation provide the opportunity to develop and implement new approaches commensurate with demand and technology, and the same applies to the development of potential new flight rules and separation requirements. In concluding the event, it was noted that Drone Enable 2023 would be hosted in Brazil next year, most likely during the third quarter, and participants were told to be on the lookout for the 2023 RFI.


 

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