Unmanned Aerial Systems in Civil Airspace: Shaping a Way Ahead


2016-09-23 In a recent press release from Airbus Defence and Space, dated September 22, 2016, it was announced that Airbus Defence and Space had reached an agreement with the European Aviation Safety Agency for the design and development of unmanned aerial systems intended for certification in civilian operations.

“After more than two years’ work Airbus Defence and Space has become the world’s first company to be approved by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for the design and development of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) intended for civil type certification.

The company’s existing Design Organisation Approval (DOA) for conventional manned aircraft has been extended to cover UAS – the critical step in allowing it to achieve type certification for that class of aircraft.

The milestone was reached two years after its Atlante UAS became the first UAS to be submitted to EASA for civil certification.

EASA and Airbus Defence and Space have been working closely together to develop certification processes based on the existing system for manned aircraft and to agree new practice where no procedures were previously in place.

Zephyr UAV in flight. Credit: Airbus Defense and Space
Zephyr UAV in flight. Credit: Airbus Defense and Space

Jana Rosenmann, Head of UAS, Airbus Defence and Space said: “Establishing the UAS category in DOAs will be a key element in the regulatory regime needed to foster UAS development in Europe. As a company we are determined to maintain a leading industrial position in the civil UAS sector, but all players stand to benefit from the establishment of the optimum regulatory framework.”

Earlier this year, at the Airbus Defence and Space Trade Media Event held in Germany on June 20, 2016, Rosenman had discussed the approach of the company to UASs, including a perspective on their role in civilian applications.

Rosenmann predicts that the global UAV market will rise from around $10.5 billion in 2016 to nearly $18 billion in 2025, with two thirds of that coming from the United States. Medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) UAVs are predicted to make up the vast majority of market value.

She told media in Germany this week that Airbus is ‘crossing the Rubicon’ and moving into the commercial market and has spent a lot of time engaging with this market.

“Everybody is talking about the civil market, with a focus on small consumer drones, of which thousands are flying around.” She said Airbus is looking to see what strategy to take with regard to the commercial market.

One example of out of the box thinking with regard to UAVs is the Zephyr pseudo satellite, a solar powered aircraft operating in the stratosphere above weather and regular air traffic. Its main applications are surveillance, communications and Internet. So far it has flown 900 hours, including a single flight that lasted 14 days.

The Zephyr S (single tail) has a wingspan of 25 metres, payload of 5 kg and weight of 55 kg but Airbus is working on the larger Zephyr T (twin tail), with a 33 metre wingspan, weight of 140 kg and 20 kg payload. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defence has ordered two for a capability demonstration next year, and is in negotiations for a third.

Rosenmann said she saw enormous UAV potential from the commercial world, with Airbus in negotiations with information technology companies in this regard, with a focus on providing hubs for Internet connectivity, with military contracts following on from those.


 But what is missing from this discussion is the key issue of the transformation of air traffic control associated with what in the United States is called next gen and in Europe SESAR.
And this crossing of UAS with space based air traffic control systems certainly is a key development for a company like Airbus Defence and Space.

In a study of the roll out of NextGen in the United States, we looked at a number of challenges which unmanned systems posed for the evolving space-based system for air traffic management which suggest the challenges in shaping an effective way ahead for the use of UAVs for civilian taskings as well.

The national air space is in effect the ocean within which the USAF operates and as such has a major stake in the transformation of ATM. NextGen will enable the shaping of an effective common operating picture (COP), and ADS-B which is a key element being embedded in aircraft can help deal with the challenge

The shift from ground-based radar to space is captured by the role of ADS-B. As originally conceived, ground stations for GPS signals would be used to provide for the inputs into the cockpits which would allow for the aircraft to gain significant situational awareness of their operating space, and with the out function the planes can provide others as well as the air traffic controllers with tools to re-shape the operational management space.

The challenge is that as the COP is shaped there is going to be more noise distortion, more traffic, a growth of unmanned systems operating in the airspace – all of this will enhance the challenge for shaping a secure and agile airspace management system.

One of the key capabilities, which the FAA is mandated to deliver by Congress, is the ability to manage unmanned aerial vehicles within the national airspace.

(For the FAA roadmap with regard to the integration of UAVs into the national air space see the following:


And one of the tasks, is the USAF working the FAA to deliver such a capability.

At a recent conference about robotic technology in Washington, D.C., a number of military members spoke about the importance of integrating drones along with manned aircraft.

“The stuff from Afghanistan is going to come back,” Steve Pennington, the Air Force’s director of ranges, bases and airspace, said at the conference. The Department of Defense “doesn’t want a segregated environment. We want a fully integrated environment.”

That means the Pentagon wants the same rules for drones as any other military aircraft in the U.S. today.


Currently, UAVs can fly only with special access in the U.S. national airspace, which requires a special certificate of authorization. These certificates very and have numerous and varied restrictions.

In the interim solution, policy, procedures and technology will be in place to permit UAVS to operate with non-segregated access in selective areas. Ground Based Sense and Avoid systems (GBSAA) will be available to mange UAVs within those selective areas.

And over the long term, the goal is to allow Remotely Piloted Aircraft or UAVS with integration into National Airspace. There will be a mixture of systems in play to allow for ATC of a mixed manned-remotely piloted air space.

In effect, the technology in NextGen and the UAV integration challenge leads in the same direction: fundamentally changing a highly centralized culture of control by the legacy ATC system into one where the ATC focuses on overall risk management and mitigation and the pilots of both RPA and manned aircraft re-shape how they handle their roles within the airspace to do sense and avoid as the air traffic pattern is altered to yield the new flight paths envisaged by the founders of NextGen.

There are clearly a number of technological issues to be overcome in enabling the effective management of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in the national airspace.

These technological hurdles are underscored in a 2012 Air Force Times article.

The Air Force and FAA agree there should be no restrictions on unmanned aircraft flying at altitudes between 18,000 feet and 60,000 feet, known as Class A airspace. At those altitudes, all aircraft — manned and unmanned — operate under instrument flight rules, which means the pilot relies primarily on instruments to control the plane within a flight plan filed with the FAA. Those instruments can be in the cockpit or, in the case of unmanned aircraft, in a ground control station. Either way, air traffic controllers are responsible for maintaining safe distances between aircraft operating under IFR.

Below 18,000 feet, pilots are permitted to use visual flight rules, which allow them to look out of the cockpit to navigate and avoid other aircraft. Under VFR, safe separation is the responsibility of the pilot, who does not have to communicate with air traffic controllers, except near controlled airports and some busy areas. There is also controlled IFR traffic below 18,000 feet, but pilots of those aircraft still must look out for uncontrolled VFR traffic.

However, the military’s unmanned aircraft do not have the ability to “sense and avoid” nearby aircraft. So below 18,000 feet, the FAA allows drones to fly only in narrow, segregated flight corridors or in areas for which special permission has been granted.

The Air Force can’t install sense-and-avoid equipment on the Predators because the necessary gear — radars, infrared cameras, transponders — is either too big or consumes too much power. A Predator equipped with sense-and-avoid equipment “can’t carry anything else,” said Dave Bither, Mav6’s vice president for strategic development. “Right now, the technology is a generation away.”

With that in mind, the Air Force is trying to convince the FAA that, in the short term, readings from ground radars can be sent to pilots in ground control stations. These radar readings would serve as the core for a ground-based sense-and-avoid system.

The FAA has agreed to work with the Pentagon on the ground-based proposal, but it expects the radars to have limited impact on the problem.

“From a practical standpoint, the ground-based sense-avoid is likely to be much more of a localized solution,” said an FAA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Radar can only reach out so far.”

Les Smith, the FAA’s flight technologies and procedures division manager, said the agency’s biggest technological challenge is sense and avoid, although “we welcome anything [the Air Force] comes up with.”

The Air Force is pushing the radar concept because it wants to avoid creating columns of restricted airspace around UAV bases. Restricting more airspace would disrupt civilian air traffic and defeat the service’s effort to normalize unmanned operations.

For the next five to 10 years, the Air Force wants to use existing ground-based air traffic control radars and other long-range search radars already in the Air Force inventory, Pennington said.

“We’d repurpose current existing ATC and long-range radars and provide a picture to the crew in the GCS that shows both the cooperative and non-cooperative” aircraft, Pennington said, referring to radar icons that display the identity information broadcast by aircraft, and those that are unidentified. “What the ground-based sense and avoid is designed to do is to provide you coverage until you get into Class A airspace, or if we’re going to continue transiting below 18,000 feet.”

Around the service’s RQ-4 Global Hawk base in Grand Forks, N.D., for example, the Air Force has created a transition airspace zone, but it would return that airspace to civil users once the ground-based sense-and-avoid system is in place, Pennington said.

The reliance on radars would not require a large leap of faith, Pennington said. It would be relatively easy, he said, to monitor air traffic in narrowly focused corridors in which unmanned aircraft flew predetermined courses.

But that would be a short-term solution. If unmanned planes are to operate with few restrictions, the Air Force will either have to come up with a way to more closely monitor all of the airspace inside the U.S. or find an airborne solution, Pennington said.

“Airborne sense and avoid is the follow-on,” he said.

That follow-on, Smith said, is “much more attractive and preferred.” However, it will be much more difficult to develop and build.

There are two hurdles, Pennington said. With the possible exception of the Global Hawks, the Air Force’s unmanned planes don’t have enough electrical power and volume to accommodate sense-and-avoid equipment. The Navy is taking the lead on sense-and-avoid technology under its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program, in which Northrop Grumman is developing a variant of the Global Hawk for ocean surveillance.

The FAA is particularly concerned about the size, weight and power issues, Smith said.

The vast majority of unmanned planes are fairly small and fly under 18,000 feet, he said.

The Defense Department has looked at airborne radars and airborne camera systems. But the FAA’s Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast apparatus — for which every aircraft is equipped with a next-generation transponder that would transmit aircraft data such as altitude, velocity and separation — is gaining favor as the basis of a Defense Department airborne sense-and-avoid architecture. This technology is in development under the FAA’s Next-Generation Air Transportation System.

“Probably the greater capability over time is going to be the ADS-B,” Pennington said.

However, the FAA is not sold on the ADS-B for airborne sense and avoid for unmanned aircraft, Smith said.

“I would say from the FAA perspective, we’re open to industry to come up with a technical solution to sense and avoid,” he said. “We’re not limiting the technology, but we haven’t endorsed any particular technology.”

The second hurdle as Pennington sees it is that the Air Force and the FAA also need to come to an agreement on lost command link procedures.

“Our concern with the command-and-control link is the reliability and integrity of that link itself,” Smith said. “The second part would be predictability of the aircraft when that occurs…..”


For recent US developments see the following:

New rules fuel the growth of the commercial drone industry

In a first, FAA allows PrecisionHawk to fly drones where pilots can’t see them

New rules for commercial drone use take effect today in the U.S.