Interview: Ben Marcus, Chairman AirMap

18 February 2019
Ben Marcus, chairman of AirMap. Source: AirMap

Safety and security aspects associated with operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) remain in the public eye after a spate of high-profile temporary airport shutdowns, most recently on 15 February at Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates.

Industry and regulators are co-operating on projects to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) into controlled airspace, with an emphasis on co-existence between unmanned and manned aircraft. At the same time, solutions are needed to prevent the accidental or deliberate intrusion of UAVs into airspace around critical infrastructure, such as airports.

As chairman of California-based UAS traffic management (UTM) solutions provider AirMap, Ben Marcus spoke to Jane’s about these interlinked issues.

UTM solutions would enable low-altitude operations beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS). In Europe, AirMap or its German subsidiary AirMap Deutschland are involved as the UTM platform provider for the following SESAR Joint Undertaking (JU) U-space demonstration programmes: VUTURA in the Netherlands, GEOSAFE in France, DOMUS in Spain, and the GOF USPACE large-scale demonstration in the Gulf of Finland.

“The volume of the unmanned aircraft market is enormous,” he noted. “There are more than one million drones registered in the US alone and we estimate a base of 11 million across the globe.” With the industry ever growing, he explained that with “all the good things that the burgeoning UAV market brings there will, of course, be downsides as well”.

These drawbacks have taken their toll on the reputation of the UAS industry, shining a spotlight on the need for viable counter-UAS (C-UAS) technologies that could mitigate or prevent future airport intrusion incidents. AirMap itself released a geofencing alert upgrade for its UTM platform in December 2018; this feature warns UAS operators when they are about to enter restricted airspace, and in future could include the capability to enforce physical separation.

However, Marcus explained that inflexible universal geofencing, jamming, and blocking systems would have a negative impact on the economic and commercial potential of UASs. He used the analogy of tyre-shredding spikes for police road enforcement. “Current C-UAS platforms are the equivalent of stop sticks used to stop a police pursuit. If this was the only mitigation tactic for stopping cars, the police would be blowing a lot of tyres on a lot of innocent people’s vehicles. We want drones to be able to fly so you can’t be taking them all down.”

By providing a “multifaceted UTM system that not only provides traffic feed data from ATM but also connects to radar and third-party UTM systems”, Marcus maintains that AirMap will enable authorities to differentiate between known, legitimate operators and unknown potentially dangerous UAVs. Putting this into the context of the incident at Gatwick Airport in December 2018, he explained there is an assumption that “the police drones that were used to look for the bad actors caused the airport to be shut down again, due to the authorities not recognising those police drones”.

In January, AirMap unveiled a partnership with two other UAS service suppliers (USSs) – Project Wing and Kittyhawk – to release the InterUSS Platform. For now the service, which allows the identification of all users registered to the providers, is optional but Marcus hopes that that participation in a UTM system will eventually become a compulsory part of UAV ownership.

The UK government recently released plans to unveil an obligatory registration system of UAV operators by November, which could facilitate the first step towards the implementation of InterUSS. Marcus said AirMap plans to link up with an “authoritative registration database, hosted by the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority], and a number of [other] USSs that are service suppliers to drone operators, specialising in different fields. Those would all exchange data with one another on where flights are happening to prevent flight collision, inform public awareness, and assist the registration database for operator identification”.

However, before this can take place, Marcus stressed that some UAV manufacturers need to abandon the attitude of “cigarette makers” and accept responsibility for the safety of their products. If they do so, and are willing as USS providers to open a dialogue with regulators, AirMap offers a UTM system that is ready for rapid deployment that would benefit the entire industry.

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