On 24th October 2021, the Government of India released the first ever national UTM (UAS Traffic Management) policy framework. This framework will essentially lay the foundation for the commercial drone industry in India. After the new and improved drone regulations were launched in August, the number of drone pilots is set to increase in the country. Therefore, having end-to-end UTM service providers is the need of the hour.
What is UTM?
Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management or UTM, is an ecosystem that manages controlled and uncontrolled drone operations. For example, air traffic controllers manage thousands of manned aircraft at high altitudes. Similarly, UTM services manage drone operations at low altitudes. UTM is hailed as the future of drone operations.
Several companies are testing autonomous delivery drones. Companies like Google Wing and Manna have already begun full-fledged drone delivery services. To monitor and manage BVLOS drone operations, a UTM service is essential. UTM services act as a real-time interface between various parties (regulatory authorities, the remote pilots, and the UAV). A UTM service provider is responsible for maintaining safety and situational awareness in demarcated airspace.
The National UTM Policy Framework
The Ministry of Civil Aviation released the national UTM policy framework on 24th October 2021. The framework details the entire functioning of the UTM ecosystem and the key stakeholders within it. This framework proposes a comprehensive pan-India UTM ecosystem that could modernize the Indian drone industry. The policy states that the UTMSP will manage Very Low Level (VLL) airspace, up to 1000ft.
Government-aided drone delivery projects such as ‘Medicine From The Sky’ have already seen massive success. To pave for more drone delivery operations, such a framework is crucial. There are 11 key stakeholders in the policy such as the central government, DGCA, ATCs, UTM service provider (UTMSP), SSP (Secondary Service Provider), remote pilot, etc. Each stakeholder has their function defined and the UTMSP acts as an interface between all stakeholders.
The UTM Ecosystem
The main goal of the UTM ecosystem will be to create, deploy, and provide essential airspace services to remote pilots. The DigitalSky platform is a key part of this process. Similar to ATM services for manned flights, the UTM services will encompass sharing flight intent and situational awareness. These services rely on an automated and layered approach of information sharing and data exchange standards rather than voice communication.
DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) and Airports Authority of India (AAI) will still be responsible for granting permissions and managing air traffic. However, all this will be coordinated in an ‘automated software-based ecosystem’.
The development, deployment, and maintenance of the UTM software will be carried out by UTMSP. As depicted in the figure above, there is an interchange of information between multiple blocks. This information interchange will be facilitated by the UTMSP. The UTM ecosystem has been divided into six major blocks:
- DigitalSky Block: The DigitalSky Block will act as the central regulatory block in the UTM ecosystem. It will enable the collaboration between different blocks in real-time. Therefore, the DigitalSky platform will act as the core unit of this system. The DigitalSky Block is further divided into DigitalSky Engine, DigitalSky Government, and DigitalSky UTMSP.
- UTMSP Block: This block is an integral part of the architecture. Here, UTMSPs will build the technical and operational capabilities into the DigitalSky platform to manage traffic and share essential information with stakeholders. It will also function as a synchronization point between the data of multiple UTMSPs.
- Supplementary Service Providers (SSPs): This group will provide various stakeholders with weather data, terrain and obstacle data, navigation and airspace surveillance data etc. for enhancing the safety of unmanned aircraft operations.
- UAS Block: This block represents UAS and remote pilots. It’s main role is to facilitate information exchange between multiple UAS, remote pilots, and between remote pilots and UTMSP.
- Government Block: Government stakeholders form this block. They will issue licenses, permissions, define airspace, approve flight permissions, monitor traffic, and create advisories.
- Public Block: The UTM ecosystem will make some data available to the general public through UTMSPs. Thus, the public can access that data to report violations of airspace by any UAS.
What Services are Provided by the UTMSPs?
UTM service providers will provide a wide range of services to remote pilots. The policy framework lists up to 18 services that any UTMSP can provide. These services include registration, airspace authorization, flight planning, exemption processing, conformance monitoring, contingency management, surveillance, weather, communication, and much more.
Real-Time Identification and Tracking
Real-Time Identification and Tracking (RIT) is an essential feature to enable high-density, complex UAS operations. The way this works is UAS will share their location, identity, UIN, timestamp, intent information, and emergency status with the UTMSP. This data sharing will take place via telecommunication networks in real-time. This will allow UTMSPs and law enforcement agencies to monitor UAS operations within the airspace. Since UTMSPs will receive sensitive data, they are mandated to maintain robust cyber security that will be subject to regular IT audits from the Central Government.
When Will UTM Services be Available?
Before deployment of the UTM ecosystem, there are a couple of steps that need to be followed. First, thorough UTM experimentation will be conducted. To do that, the Central Government will publish a Request For Expression of Interest (RFEOI) to conduct UTM experiments. The experiments will last for a maximum of six months.
Based on the outcome, recommendations and changes will be considered.
Finally, a sample integration of the participating UTMSP with the DigitalSky platform will be tested before full-scale deployment. Therefore, it can be speculated that within a year of the RFEOI publication, UTM services will begin in India. To learn more about the national UTM policy framework, read the official publication here.