Using NOTAMs to integrate drones into the global airspace

PwC predicts that the value of the drone industry by 2020 will be $127 billion (2) and FAA estimates that over 7 million consumer and commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) will be shipped in the US over the same time period (3).  This unpreceded expansion of Airspace users creates many opportunities, however, as with every new innovation in aviation, ensuring safety is paramount. Finding a safe approach to drones flying with consideration of restricted airspace is therefore critical.

The graph below from the BBC (5) shows that the trend of aircraft incidents involving drones has drastically increased over recent years. Taking this information in the context of IATA’s expectation that the demand for air travel will double by 2036 (1) clearly demonstrates why integrating drones into the global airspace is so important.

To achieve this, some of the most innovative companies from the aviation and technology arena are building Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM) platforms. UTM platforms help manage the integration of drones into the airspace by bringing together key airspace related datasets, such as Notice to Airmen (NOTAMs) from Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs). This data is then integrated with operational datasets from drone users (such as a drone flight plan). Unfortunately, due to the federated nature of ANSPs and the complex legacy formats they use, many UTM platform providers find integrating airspace related datasets from ANSPs both costly and time-consuming. These issues mean that many do not have an operational solution to access a single source of data in a modern easy to consume format. This is the problem that Snowflake Software is helping to solve by making aviation data accessible and easy to use, we want to help the drone integrate into the global airspace.

What are the challenges?

Laws and Regulations

A key challenge is the ever increasing laws and regulations being implemented by regulatory bodies on a country-by-country basis, putting further pressure on the UTM providers to better integrate with the global airspace. Recent incidents at the UK’s two largest airports (At Gatwick in December 2018 and Heathrow in January 2019) have shown just how costly it can be for a drone to fly within restricted airspace. The resulting laws rapidly put in place to mitigate a repeat of the situation now prevents all drones flying above 400ft and within one kilometre of airport boundaries. UK law now also requires owners of drones which weigh more than 250g to register with the Civil Aviation Authority (8). This isn’t, however, a UK specific problem with regulatory authorities in most countries creating laws that require the drone industry to have a common situational awareness between all airspace users.

Achieving Common Situational Awareness

In order to operate safely within the airspace, an aircraft pilot and a drone pilot both need to have a clear understanding of any restrictions during the flight planning phase and throughout the flight. Ensuring that all airspace users have access to the same common situational picture is crucial to ensuring the safe execution of each flight. This means that airspace related datasets such as NOTAMs (Notice To Airmen) and Airspace restrictions, need to be accessible to the drone community.

Data Accessibility (There is no easy access global data set)

To enable drone pilots to operate safely within the law, it is crucial that they have real-time situational awareness on what is happening in the airspace and any restrictions and regulations on where, when and how high they can fly. Information such as airspace restrictions and NOTAMs is already available from ANSPs on a country-by-country basis but unfortunately, this information can be difficult to find and even more difficult to access. For example, a UTM platform provider requiring global NOTAM information would have to establish relationships with over 100 ANSPs around the world

Data Formats (There is no easy to read format)

Have you read a traditional text-based NOTAM? Have a look at the NOTAM on the left below.  Invented more than 60 years ago and designed to be human readable this still remains the prefered way of communicating airspace restrictions. If you want to know more read our blog on Top 7 Things you need to know about NOTAMs

Commercial aircraft pilots have years of training and domain knowledge to interpret text-based NOTAMs and Airspace references which drone pilots will never achieve.  So how do UTM platform providers even start? The key challenge is to parse all this inherent complexity within a NOTAM or airspace restriction to create a visual form (shown on the right, above) capable of being interpreted by a drone pilot and/or processed using a technique called geo-fencing by a UTM platform.  Such information can then easily be filtered for a specific drone flight

What is the solution?

In order to mitigate the risk of drones flying into restricted airspace, the solution is two-fold: 1) Relevant restriction and NOTAM data from ANSPs needs to be collated and made available on a global scale, 2) Complex legacy and domain-specific encodings need to be converted to an intuitive form that requires limited operational knowledge to understand. Only by simplifying access to data in this way will UTM platform providers around the world be able to provide drone pilots with the situational awareness to plan and execute their missions safely.

Many ANSP’s have recognised this data access and integration problem. The FAA, for example, has launched a program called Low-Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC). LAANC is “a collaboration between FAA and Industry, directly supporting UAS integration into the airspace(7). The goal of LAANC is to automate the application and approval process around airspace authorisation. This functionality is then provided to the industry through applications developed by approved UAS Service Suppliers (USS).

A key aspect of LAANC compliance is validating drone operations against a number of key airspace datasets. By accessing data on NOTAMs, Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) and UAS Facility Maps the USS can ensure that their customers avoid flying within restricted airspace. It is this kind of data sharing that will be key to enabling the safe integration of drones into the existing airspace.

Whilst TFRs and UAS Facility Maps are US-specific, NOTAM information is a great example of a global dataset which is required by the drone industry in order to integrate drones into the global airspace.

Where can I find NOTAM data?

At Snowflake Software our vision is to accelerate innovation in the aviation Industry by making the world’s aviation data accessible and easy to use.  Through our award-winning Laminar Data Hub platform, we work with leading organisations across the industry to deliver a single source of global, spatially-enabled, filtered and easy-to-use NOTAMs for the drone industry. Our goal is to ensure that drone pilots have access to the relevant NOTAM and restriction data required in order to safely integrate into the global airspace.

Conclusion

All of the available evidence and predictions from industry bodies points in one direction: both Manned and Unmanned Air Traffic is going to substantially increase in the coming years. This increase will likely lead to more incidents both of the malicious (as recently experienced in the UK) and accidental variety. Whilst there are many challenges, it is clear that enabling common situational awareness through data exchange of key operational airspace datasets such as NOTAMs is going to play a critical role in enabling drone pilots to safely integrate with the global airspace.

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1. https://www.iata.org/pressroom/pr/Pages/2017-10-24-01.aspx
2. https://press.pwc.com/News-releases/global-market-for-commercial-applications-of-drone-technology-valued-at-over–127-bn/s/ac04349e-c40d-4767-9f92-a4d219860cd2
3. https://www.faa.gov/news/updates/?newsId=85227&cid=TW414
4. Http://dronecenter.bard.edu/files/2015/12/12-11-Drone-Sightings-and-Close-Encounters.pdf
5. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44293905
6. https://www.faa.gov/news/speeches/news_story.cfm?newsId=21316
7. https://www.faa.gov/uas/programs_partnerships/data_exchange/
8. https://www.caa.co.uk/consumers/unmanned-aircraft-and-drones/