Drones and flying taxis are coming – how will air traffic control systems cope?

Joseph Flaig

New traffic management systems will combine with existing ones to achieve the goal of 'blended airspace' (Credit: Vertical Aerospace)
New traffic management systems will combine with existing ones to achieve the goal of 'blended airspace' (Credit: Vertical Aerospace)

The drones are coming. After years of small-scale but growing private and public use, we are approaching a point where the business case for large commercial fleets offering deliveries and more will be unavoidable for companies, and governments will be expected to respond.

In the UK, this could mean a thousand-fold increase in ‘air movements,’ says Dr Adrian Cole, manager of the Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre at Cranfield University. Such a massive increase will require a new approach to the way we manage the vehicles flying above our heads. 

“There needs to be greater data exchange in order to enable this step change in airspace usage,” he says. “Just think about the number of drones that will be in the sky, compared to aircraft at the moment. We need a system that can cope with that. Safety is always the number-one issue.”

This data will be tied together into Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management (UTM) systems. Like conventional Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems, UTMs need to give a high degree of confidence in the position of any drones or other autonomous craft. They will also include aircraft capabilities.

New UTMs, each with similar or the same capabilities to provide redundancy, must integrate with ATMs and airports to achieve the goal of ‘blended airspace’ – an environment in which unmanned vehicles share the airspace with conventional aircraft. 

Experimental corridor

Cole and colleagues at Cranfield, Blue Bear Systems Research, Thales, Vodafone and Aveillant are working towards that goal at the National Beyond Visual Line of Sight Experimentation Corridor (NBEC). Stretching roughly 14km across Bedfordshire between the university’s airport and Blue Bear in Oakley, the corridor is a space in which drones can fly over the horizon – currently illegal in most circumstances – and possibly cross over general aviation flight paths for small, single-engine aircraft. 

A study by the Connected Places Catapult indicated a potential requirement for multiple UTM ‘architectures’, so NBEC provides a space in which they can be studied and validated. Interoperability of the systems is a key focus, along with data security, privacy of air movements and system reliance. The systems will run on communications networks including 4G and 5G.  

Drones are not the only air traffic revolution on the horizon, so NBEC is also investigating the integration of electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOL), often referred to as flying taxis.

“If we can’t manage drones, we can’t manage these electric personal quadcopters or whatever, particularly those that are fully autonomous,” says Cole. “It’s all part of the same thing, and this is the focus of an awful lot of effort.” 

Higher connectivity

One of the companies leading the effort is Honeywell Aerospace, which is working with eVTOL firms Jaunt Air Mobility and Bristol’s Vertical Aerospace. Honeywell is supplying Vertical with its compact fly-by-wire system, a fully electronic flight control system that replaces conventional manual controls with an all-electronic interface. 

With safety the top priority in the strictly controlled flight corridors of the future, Honeywell has also developed an integrated technology called Forge that “collects, cleans and analyses” streams of disparate data to provide ground-based controllers with relevant information for safer and more efficient flight. 

“The amount of data an aircraft will have to share will continue to increase – according to a 2016 survey, the global fleet of commercial aircraft is estimated to generate 98m terabytes of data per year by 2026,” says Hector Garcia, engineering director at Honeywell Aerospace.

“We’re seeing the new-generation aircraft produce between five and eight terabytes per flight, which is up to 80 times more than what older aircraft are generating today. This will naturally require higher connectivity to ensure the increased data can be transmitted and analysed faster.” 

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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