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NetworkCoverage: Enabling Complex Drone Operations

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While the U.S. chose not to go the route of networked Remote ID, Europe went a different way in developing their UTM program, U-Space.  The newly published NetworkCoverage Service Definition will help European drone operators, aviation systems, and telcos communicate: and the European drone industry to advance towards complex operations.

Connecting the Dots – Network Solutions Enabling Complex Operations in Europe & Beyond

By: Dawn M.K. Zoldi, Guest Contributor

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) surprised many in the U.S. drone industry when their final remote identification (RID) rule went live in late 2020. It lacked the originally proposed networked solution, but left the door open for it. In the meantime, across the pond in February 2021 the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) mandated networked ID as part of U-Space, the unmanned traffic management (UTM) system that fits into the EU regulatory scheme (see previous U-Space coverage here).

The latest achievement is the first-of-its kind publication of a definition that harmonizes the interfaces of data exchanges between mobile network operators (MNOs) and various aviation systems as part of the overall UTM system.  It’s called the Aerial Connectivity Joint Activity (ACJA) Interface for Data Exchange between MNOs and the UTM Ecosystem NetworkCoverage Service Definition v1.00 Feb 2021, a joint Global UTM Association and GSMA collaboration. Thomas Neubauer, Vice President of Innovations at TEOCO and Co-founder of Dimetor, creators of AirborneRF, spearheaded this ground-breaking effort.

The new definition provides the means to bridge and harmonize how data will be exchanged between the triad of telcos, aviation systems and drone end-users. This is key because historically either these parties did not communicate with each other at all, or at least in the case of drone users and aviation systems, non-continuously.

AirborneRF is the first end-to-end implementation of the ACJA NetworkCoverage Service Definition.  It is an end-to-end connectivity management software that allows telecommunications companies (telcos) cellular systems and various aviation system-users to “talk” to each other.

Here’s how the NetworkCoverage Service works. The NetworkCoverageService serves as the central interface to handle requests from Planning and Authorization Services, which are located at the UAS Service Supplier or UAV operator.  The Connectivity Service will be placed in a telco’s secure data center to automatically compute, based on the confidential and classified network data, the required results indicating whether or not sufficient connectivity exists for drone flight operations.  The NetworkCoverageService provides these results back to those who requested them. The Connectivity Service at the telcos also pushes information, via the NetworkCoverageService to a Notification Service, in case any unforeseen change in the network occurs during a flight operation. This enables communication service providers, such as MNOs and SATCOM providers, to become important Supplemental Data Service Providers (SDSP) for aviation systems. AirborneRF comprises both the Connectivity Service and the NetworkCoverage Service, which allows end-to-end two-way communications and critical safety data exchanges between telco systems and aviation systems.

This information, and other live data relating to weather and airspace situational awareness will aggregate and flow simultaneously to/from Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) systems (for U.S., FAA flight information management systems and air traffic management (ATM), among others) for authorizations and tracking as well as to/from an Operation Planning Service (for U.S., UAS Service Supplier or USS), to whom the drone operator has a direct link. Importantly, this continuous feedback loop will also support:

  • near real time notifications of coverage gaps in a particular flight path
  • redundancy through satellite communications, terrestrial receivers and other technologies to supplement cellular coverage and
  • a ground risk picture because telcos can provide data on how many users are in a certain area at any given time (note for privacy advocates: the data will not include who is where, just that a dot on a map is there)

Will it actually work? Even though these concepts were just now codified, they have already been proven in the context of Europe’s research and development (R&D) ecosystem. That ecosystem includes the European Commission’s Single European Sky (SES) initiative to reform European ATM architectures at the European level. The Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR), the technological pillar of SES (like the FAA’s BEYOND program) coordinates EU ATM R&D. The SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU) manages large public-private partnerships, consisting of 3,000 global experts.

In the summer of 2019, the SJU Gulf of Finland (GOF) U-space project successfully demonstrated the safe airspace integration of unmanned aerial vehicles. SESAR GOF U-space project included an international drone delivery over the GOF between Torbacka, Finland and Muraste, Estonia and an urban Volocopter air taxi flight from the Vantaa international airport to Helsinki.

The next and current phase of R&D, GOF 2.0 Integrated Urban Airspace Validation, involves a 15-member consortium from 7 different European countries. They will, for the first time, implement the NetworkCoverage interface for combined drone, electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL), and manned operations in a dense urban airspace using existing ATM and U-space services and systems. The first wave of two-years worth of trials will occur from September to October 2021 in Estonia (Tallinn, Tartu), Finland (Helsinki), Poland (Kąkolewo) and Austria (Graz) and will involve multiple different scenarios. For example, eVTOL intra-urban and peri-urban flights, long endurance drone surveillance flights (above 150m) and drone surveillance flights in urban areas (up to 120m) will all take place in Tartu, Estonia. Roadshows are projected to take place in May and June 2022, between wave 1 and wave 2 of the main trials, in Denmark, Sweden and Latvia to demonstrate the scalability of the GOF2.0 architecture. AirborneRF will provide the sole interface between the telcos and the ATM/UTM system for integrated airspace management.

Why does all of this matter? According to Neubauer, “Network connectivity is a must have for safe airspace integration. This new definition opens the door to reliable, feasible, available and scalable beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and complex operations. The  GOF 2.0 trials will be our final proving ground.” It will, indeed, connect the final dots needed for the industry to truly soar!

Networkcoverage Enabling Complex Drone OperationsDawn M.K. Zoldi (Colonel, USAF, Retired) is a licensed attorney with 28 years of combined active duty military and federal civil service to the Department of the Air Force. She is an internationally recognized expert on unmanned aircraft system law and policy, the Law-Tech Connect™ columnist for Inside Unmanned Systems magazine, a recipient of the Woman to Watch in UAS (Leadership) Award 2019, and the CEO of P3 Tech Consulting LLC. For more information, visit her website at: https://www.p3techconsulting.com.





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