In Europe, the United States and countries around the world, drone technology is advancing rapidly, and what used to be considered toys are quickly becoming powerful commercial tools that can provide enormous benefits in terms of safety and efficiency. However, before some of the most innovative drone applications can become reality, including things like package delivery and long-range infrastructure inspections, most countries, particularly those with more congested airspace, will need some form of a low-altitude traffic management system to ensure drones can avoid colliding with buildings, manned aircraft, or one another.  Developing such a safety system will be critical to unlocking the most promising drone applications of the future.

Last month the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research Joint Undertaking (“SESAR“), the organisation set up in 2007 to coordinate European research and development activities on air traffic management (“ATM“), unveiled its blueprint for automated air navigation technologies for low altitude drones operating in complex airspace.

The blueprint fleshes out the European Commission’s plans for a “U Space” – an area of urban airspace up to 150m that is actively managed by technology to allow for “safe, efficient and secure access to [urban] airspace for large numbers of drones.”

The proposal was first announced by Violeta Bulc, the European Commissioner for Transport, at a conference in Warsaw last year.

The Commission hopes that “U Space” will provide similar functions to those provided by the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS” or drone) Traffic Management (“UTM”) system being developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”), the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) and global industry partners in the United States for enabling safe, efficient low-altitude drone operations.

What is U-Space, and what does SESAR’s blueprint mean for drone users?

SESAR expects that “U Space” will initially provide a system for the e-registration and e-identification of drones. It also hopes that “U Space” technology will allow certain restricted sites to be geo-fenced by air service navigation providers.

These proposals are not new. On 12 May 2017 the European Aviation Safety Agency (“EASA“) opened its formal consultation into regulatory changes requiring certain UAS to be registered and licensed. You can read our previous blog on that consultation (and the proposed regulatory changes) here.

In the future, SESAR intends for “U Space” to provide flight planning and approval services, drone tracking and “conflict detection” functions as well a means of interfacing UAS traffic management with conventional air traffic control systems.

SESAR hopes that “U Space” when fully operational will “encourage innovation, support the development of new businesses and facilitate the overall growth of the European drone services market.” It also expects that “U Space” technology will allow a number of drone operations that are currently restricted to be liberalised.

When will “U Space” be implemented?

SESAR has divided “U Space” into four implementation phases:

  • Phase 1: providing e-registration, identification and geo-fencing services;
  • Phase 2: providing flight planning and approval services, interfacing with conventional air traffic control, and providing flight tracking and “automated airspace information” services(i.e. warning when cranes are or other temporary obstacles are erected);
  • Phase 3: providing capacity management and conflict detection technologies (SESAR suggests that this will allow for a “significant increase” in UAS operations); and
  • Phase 4: fully integrating drone air traffic control with manned aviation.

The European Commission and SESAR have made clear that they expect “U Space” Phase 1 by the end of 2019; and SESAR has suggested that “pre-operational […] demonstrations” of Phase 2 will also be available by that time. Neither the European Commission nor SESAR have indicated when they expect Phases 3 and 4 to become fully operational.