Airspace of the Future
Project duration: 1 December 2020 - 1 May 2022
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Airspace of the Future (AoF)
Airspace of the Future was a collaborative project involving Thales, Cranfield University, Cranfield Airport Operations, Altitude Angel, Inmarsat, the Ocado Group, Blue Bear, Connected Places Catapult, and Satellite Applications Catapult. The nine partners come together to form the Airspace of the Future (AoF) consortium in response to the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Future of Flight Challenge (FFC).
Looking at challenges facing the UK’s Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) ecosystem over a two-year period, the consortium worked to integrate drone services within the wider UK transport sector. The development and analysis of new technologies included research into freight-carrying drones, urban air vehicles, drone flight control systems and hybrid-electric regional aircraft.
The AoF project was funded by £125 million from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which in turn was matched by £175 million from industry. It was hoped that holistically through this project, advances in electric and autonomous flight technology will expose long-term societal benefits which may include:
- An increase in mobility
- A reduction of road congestion
- An improvement of connectivity
- Scale up opportunities for UK Manufacturing
- A reduction in environmental impact for aviation across the UK (and globally)
The consortium additionally develops upon the supporting ground infrastructure, regulation and control systems required to use advances in Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) flightpaths. The concept is further contextualised in the diagram, the value of which is demonstrated in innovative simulation and real-world applications.
The Airspace of the Future (AoF) could accelerate business and social adoption in the advances in drone technology. The project primarily establishes an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) simulated and live trials environment, providing for implementation and design of Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), unsegregated flight of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and Urban Air Mobility (UAM) vehicles. All of which occur within the designated airspace zones across the UK.
What does the aviation airspace look like?
Manned aviation has three types of classification, upper middle and lower. There are various classes through from A-G each with varying constraints and regulations that feature and manage safe use; developed over many years. For AOF the primary focus is the sub 500 ft zone; as drone use is generally permitted up to 400ft. Manned aviation doesn’t tend to intersect this low-level airspace except when passing through it in both take-off and landing (with many notable exceptions). Looking at the sub 500 ft model low level airspace zoning, x, y and both types of zone z have an increasing level of risk associated with them.
Fundamental areas and objectives explored in this project:
1. Drone Ops
Prove reliability and viability, Public acceptance, & Advertise UK capability
2. Airspace Management and UTM
Develop new proof of concept functions in control and user plane
3. Use Case and Business Modelling
Open market for new user terminals and services
4. Regulatory Framework and Safety Case
Get agreement on a single standard for all airspace
5. Simulation Environment
Baseline for adding new applications and services before demo and trial at Westcott drone port
6. Systems Architecture and Infrastructure
Input to 3GPP and ITU standards
Paul Febvre, Chief Technology Officer at the Satellite Applications Catapult
“From safe routing and accurate positioning to reliable worldwide and on-board communications, satellite services have been, and will continue to be, instrumental in ensuring air transport is safe and as green as possible. The future of advanced aviation systems will include a revolution in logistics and advanced air mobility with the exploitation of autonomous systems such as drones. Innovations like this will rely on new satellite services to provide low-cost solutions for highly reliable monitoring, positioning and communications systems, and we’re looking forward to driving these developments.”
Use case validation is of paramount significance, highlighting operational factors, economic impact, environmental considerations and finally the beneficial societal impact. Compiling information produces a comprehensive understanding of the different factors for the future airspace.
Based upon the CORUS (Concept of Operation U-SPACE Services) The principle environments can be split into three main types (X,Y,Z). These four levels of capability demonstrated are not only for the platform but for the system, imposing an increasing amount of technology to meet the demands of the increasing risk level from X-Z. A key enabler is the regulatory and legislative piece of the project; all fundamental areas and objectives will culminate into trails and demonstrations expecting technologies to reach U1-U3. Future simulations occurring in U4 allow prospective hypothetical operations and requirements to be established in a safe manner.
The National Beyond visual line of sight Experimentation Corridor (NBEC) utilises a rural location stretching from Blue Bear’s Bedfordshire headquarters to Cranfield University’s Global Research Airport allowing new technologies to be tested and integration to occur with the involvement of industry and regulatory stakeholders; accelerating leading edge research.
Cranfield University and Cranfield airport operations work with world leading UTM provider Altitude Angel and the CAA authority ensured that airspace design is credible and can be implemented through controlled testing.
The Satellite Applications Catapult leads in development of specifications for the Communication, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) infrastructure of the future airspace management system. For the AoF project, the Satellite Applications Catapult developed the insight on connectivity that would satisfy the UAS market this involves:
- Developing modelling of communications service performance, focussing on hybrid/ubiquitous wireless connectivity and satellite and cellular communication bearers, particularly the C2 Link
- Analysing regulatory requirements and framework for communications in UTMs, with focus on consideration the communications infrastructure for future UTMs.
- Future airspace management e.g. Satellite Communication and cellular 4G/5G to identify key performance specifications such as availability, coverage, and Quality of Service (QoS) metrics.
- Review and analysis of legacy, present and prospective navigation technologies identifying the most likely contributing technologies
- A tool for analysis of UAV altitude related cellular coverage and connectivity performance
- Analysis of potential surveillance technologies including radars, ADS-B and video considering their application areas, coverage, and corresponding constraints
- Framework for estimating costs of 5G infrastructure and services
- Support of work packages including engagement & dissemination, standardisation and regulation of airspace management, with consultancy and knowledge sharing throughout
As part of the projects scope for ubiquitous wireless connectivity for UAV operations, a tool has been developed based on a standardised communication model for three-dimensional cellular connectivity performance analysis and coverage evaluation. This tool can be used for pre-flight analysis to determine the optimum flight path determining at which point to switch from cellular to satellite connectivity, as well as for the development of digital twins. The UAV connectivity status and signal strength analysis carried out using the tool for a typical flight path in the Milton Keynes region, is presented. This was featured in the final showcase event and well received within the community.
The overall outcome for this project is to position the UK at the forefront of UTM and UAM research, development and use thereof, contributing to UK economic growth and helping the industry to develop safe, efficient, and sustainable systems to move goods, people, and other drone-based services.
BVLOS UAV flights are a catalyst for coherent airspace deconfliction, through developments in functional trails credible solutions will see implementation and further development for safe integration with real world scenarios outside of trail environments.
In the UK the enabling technologies are advancing at a faster rate than the regulation, promising project work concluded in the UK exhibits overseas export potential. Therefore, through development and enablement of open access to this platform a beneficial reshape for the future of aviation can occur, advancing electric and autonomous flight technologies thus reducing our carbon emissions.
Looking at the airspace of tomorrow we’ll see increased operations and benefits of drones as well as an airspace at higher capacity. Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology is set to benefit us all and will become more apparent to a wider industry with public perception improving as real-world applications are exploited further. Elements of infrastructure working harmoniously with UAV’s will enable safer operation within high-risk settings, whilst autonomy of UAV flight enables the development of infrastructure throughout innovation within drone corridors.
Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) infrastructure services provider Skyports selected Westcott Space Cluster in the south of England as its European headquarters and centre of excellence to remotely operate its Beyond Visual Line Sight (BVLOS) drone flights. Skyports are working with leading electrical vertical take off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle manufacturers. The airspace of tomorrow will exhibit both passenger and cargo vertiports, enabling the operation of safe and efficient flight operations within both suburban and urban environments.
There are aspects of 5G technology, including non-terrestrial infrastructure, that require further research. Work in a multitude of sectors through autonomous aviation develops encouraging use of the innovative technology within the UK. Drone technology is fortunately developing at an exponential rate and we’re seeing a higher use of drone utilisation within a range of sectors providing a sizable amount of data to analyse. Equitable use of the airspace and harmonious infrastructure implementation for operators forms an idyllic scenario, providing the necessary factors for regulation, business, and technology to develop together safely.