Aerospace and defence firm Thales has announced a partnership with Telstra to manage the low altitude airspace used by manned and unmanned aerial vehicles.
The two companies revealed they have been working on a prototype “data and communication solution” at the Avalon Airshow in Victoria this week.
The prototype air traffic control platform, called Low Altitude Airspace Management (LAAM), involves operators of commercial drones fitting a Telstra-made tracking device to their UAV, registering their pilot details, and then mapping out their flight path on an online map.
The mission is automatically approved by a centralised rules engine, if it is deemed safe, and rejected if not. The pilot receives the green light – a message alert of “automated controlled airspace authorization accepted for your mission” for example – then proceeds with the flight, which is tracked in real-time by the platform.
Telstra’s mobile network provides a “secondary source for validating location” the telco said. There is also the potential for authorities to make real-time drone locations available using “SIM based location triangulation”.
The platform can alert pilots if there is an issue – such as a police operation.
“Machine learning and AI could be used in the future for event driven policies and regulations,” Telstra said.
“The ambition is to create a robust digital communications network infrastructure using Telstra’s expertise, to underpin the navigation and surveillance ecosystem needed to safely manage low altitude airspace,” the telco added.
The prototype comes in response to the forecast increase in low altitude airspace users – be they unmanned delivery drones, manned helicopters or autonomous flying taxis.
“With the huge increase in drones in the airspace, flights per day will go from thousands to millions. The challenges are enormous, as are the opportunities. In Australia drone use will drive efficiency and financial benefits to a large proportion of Australian businesses,” said Thales Australia Chief Executive Chris Jenkins.
“Thales is partnering with Telstra to contribute to the creation of a seamless sky where we help our customers integrate unmanned aircraft into controlled airspace as well as supporting drone users to perform their missions in an orderly, safe and timely manner,” Jenkins added.
Thales is working on similar airspace management platforms elsewhere. Last year, the company partnered with NASA in the US to research and develop airspace control for flights under 400ft. Thales was also selected by the US Federal Aviation Administration to simplify compliance for UAV operators.
Thales launched its ECOsystem UTM (unmanned traffic management) system – which the prototype developed with Telstra appears to be based on – in 2017.
Telstra added that it was taking “a strategic role” in the development of a “safe and secure drone-based economy” with its work in the area.
“There are extraordinary opportunities for the widespread take-up of unmanned aerial vehicles in Australia. To unlock this potential, we are investigating how we can leverage our 4G and 5G technology and IoT capabilities to enable robust communications, navigation and monitoring of UAVs,” said Andrew Scott, head of technology, Telstra Labs.
“The work we’ve been doing with Thales to build a prototype, which is underpinned by continuous investment in our networks, proves that it is possible for unmanned and manned aerial vehicles to collaborate effectively and safely,” he added.
Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority this week revealed it had issued 10,999 remote pilot licences and 1504 remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) operator certificates.
“It's difficult to predict where these numbers might go, and where we'll reach saturation point for what the market can sustain, but if we look at licensing, by 2023 based on current trends, we could see a total of 24,000 remote pilot licences in Australia. This year, the number of RPA operator certificates will likely double the number of current air operator certificate,” said CASA’s RPA lead Luke Gumley on Monday.
“How do we effectively oversight a sector that is growing exponentially?” he added.