2019 Connected Skies issue of Dronin' OnHi all –

Nice to hear from so many of you about the June 6th issue – no, I am not “back” but I am having fun. As those of you who read the “The RID riddle” issue know, this issue is dedicated to the GUTMA Connected Skies Forum, #connectedskies, which Intel hosted at their Jones Farm Conference Center in Hillsboro, OR.

There’s a complete backgrounder in the Connected Skies Forum Preview – but in the simplest terms: GUTMA is the Global UTM Association, a non-profit consortium of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM) stakeholders.

Its purpose is to foster the safe, secure and efficient integration of drones in national airspace systems. Its mission is to support and accelerate the transparent implementation of globally interoperable UTM systems.

GUTMA has 70 members and partners from 27 countries.

The CONNECTED SKIES Forum explored the idea that as the airspace becomes both more saturated and more valuable, the only scalable solution for managing air traffic of all kinds will be software-defined, connected, and distributed interoperable systems.

Some 200 professionals representing 122 organizations from 25 different countries registered to make the trek to Portland to discuss what to do and how to get it done. Among them, were ten air navigation service providers (ANSPs), six regulatory bodies (including ICAO) and nine mobile network operators (MNOs). There was one official delegate from the FAA.


Slide from Jonathan Evan’s opening remarks

I am going to begin at the end and say that of all of the drone conferences that I have been to, GUTMA’s Connected Skies is the first one that was specifically designed to move the ball forward. Here are a few of the things that contribute to my optimism.

There were very few mentions of the Gartner Hype Curve, and a refreshing absence of hype. No one is talking about #dronesRgood. Or Counter UAS. Instead, these people are working to define a world in which Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) of all shapes and sizes are an integral part of what I am going to dub the GAS – the Global Airspace System (you heard it here first.) Please allow me to hyperbolize. No national airspace (NAS) is big enough for what’s coming.

GASthe Global Airspace System

Attending Connected Skies drove home just how much UTM development is going on worldwide. The international audience reflected the very different regulatory perspectives of the Americas, EME (Europe and the Middle East) and APAC (Asia Pacific). FOCA, (the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation) was there in force and was particularly impressive.

PK (Parimal Kopardekar, Acting Director of NASA Aeronautics Research Institute (NARI) and the father of UTM) dropped by via satellite after lunch on Day 2 with a bombshell update. Here is a paraphrase:

PK is working on extending the UTM concept into ATM at all flight levels. He is looking into transforming today’s ATM into a digitalized and connected environment. This makes UTM not just something for drones but rather an approach that is applicable to the entire aviation system. 

hallway convo

GUTMA achieved its goal of creating awareness between aviation companies, technology companies, telecoms and regulators. One powerful visual of this new world of aviation – on a stage from left to right – Airbus, Boeing, Amazon, Wing, Uber. Another – senior leaders from ASTM, ISO, IEEE, 3GPP and RTCA on the stage – all of whom are working on various UTM standards. Look at the Program and you will see many more powerful combinations.

These are groups with the horsepower necessary to drive things forward. They are focused on creating a sustainable sky. Absolutely no slight intended, but this is not about DJI (who is an active participant) or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) solving the problem alone.

A number of people spoke about their commitment to building an ethical, equitable solution and creating a level playing field (Would you have known what I meant by level airspace? Me neither.) UTM will be a highly automated system that will have to be able to allocate airspace and resolve conflicts.

Slide from Andy Thurling's presentation - UTM In The Wild
Slide from Andy Thurling’s presentation – UTM In The Wild

NUAIR CTO Andy Thurling made a passionate presentation called Crossing the Chasm modeled on Geoffrey Moore’s seminal book about technology adoption. He was one of the few that related the ongoing technical and regulatory work to the need to make a business case.

The regulators with whom I spoke were clear that no one knows how to test the kinds of complex systems that will be required to manage UTM and all of the supporting services at scale. The corollary is:

If you can’t tell a regulator how and what to test, it’s much easier to say no.”

Of course, this problem is hardly unique to UAS or UTM, or ATM (Air Traffic Managemen) for that matter.

What made the event so enjoyable was the genuine collegial sense of respect for the process and the opinions of others. For the most part, these are men (more ladies needed) who are used to splitting hairs and atoms on the committees that they chair, and the committees on which they serve. In the real world, this is how things get done. This is what leadership looks like.


Ephemera - GUTMA's charter written on a cocktail napkin and signed by all
Ephemera – GUTMA’s charter written on a cocktail napkin and signed by all

When the founders gathered around a wine-stained cocktail napkin in April of 2016, they identified four attributes of a Usefull! (sic) system.

  1. Harmony
  2. Global UTM standard
  3. Open Source
  4. Fast

Building a fast Open Source solution is primarily a technical problem. On the plane ride home, I sat next to a physicist from Sandia Lab. After he caught me up on his work on the formation of planets, our conversation shifted to the Forum. It took him two seconds to liken the problem to the JPEG photographic standard. To which, from firsthand experience, I will add USB and Wi-Fi. All three are universally interoperable standards that have spurred massive growth.

So, the first big idea that I would like you to take away is that the UTM standard must be as robust and as ubiquitous as Wi-Fi or USB. Let’s not piddle and piffle. If you look at history, deriving such a standard requires a global community of stakeholders and considerable investment. If we’re thinking, we can skip a Betamax v VHS or NTSC v PAL standards war.

GUTMA founder Jonathan Evans is fond of calling UTM the TCP/IP of the skies. I think that it might be useful to think of UTM as the BIOS that sits on the bottom of a new ‘stack.’ It is the necessary foundation on which we can build an end to end solution for the ‘future of unmanned aviation.’

I tried the analogy out on Kittyhawk CEO Jon Hegranes who liked it because it leaves room for specific implementations – Jon mentioned the distinction between “regular” and “aviation grade,” and inspections versus delivery as examples.

Given some time and money, the tech is ‘easy,’ regulation not so much. As the Belgian anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss quipped:

The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions.

Albert Einstein said much the same thing:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Here’s the Aha! insight. The question is not what the US standard should be, because answering that question does not solve the problem set forth on the cocktail napkin. That solution requires defining an international standard.

image courtesy of ICAO

To my surprise, in his opening remarks, Saulo da Silva, Chief Global Interoperable Systems Section, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said that UTM, and its red-headed stepchild Remote ID (RID), is the “topic of the hour around the world.”  Adding that:

I have 193 countries that need this answer and they need it now. Aviation needs a Single Sky.”

The key to moving forward is the ICAO Global Aviation Trust Framework which is intended to ensure secure digital communications for global aviation.

Identity and Trust is the foundational principle of the global aviation network that connects us today. The key to modern identity and trust framework is that it be applied consistently across the aviation ecosystem.

The Framework defines the essential components.

  • Interoperability requires global coordination and cooperation.
  • Identify common needs that can unite all aviation ecosystem stakeholders.
  • Develop common solutions that build on existing foundations.
  • Agree on a common destination – where there is still one interoperable sky.

It also addresses the need for cybersecurity, a recurring theme that was acknowledged but could not be fully addressed. (It was after all only three days.)

Adrian Solomon who is part of THALES’ Digital Aviation for Customer Success initiative suggested that:

Data trustworthiness is the main challenge. Securely connecting the drone to the network in the first step towards Real-time services to the operator and Real-time fleet and drone management. Thus, the trustworthiness of the generated data becomes the cornerstone of the system.

Bill Voss doing a little coaching

One person you need to be aware of is Bill Voss, the former President/CEO, Flight Safety Foundation who is now serving as the Special Adviser to the Director Air Navigation Bureau at ICAO. Bill appears to have taken on the critical role of mentoring GUTMA on how to get ICAO approval.

Bill was careful to distinguish between standards (e.g. spectrum) and mandates (e.g. services.) He noted that ICAO has no authority to mandate to its members. And so, a global standard, no matter how well supported, won’t necessarily be mandated or supported locally.

With the big picture painted and the goal clearly in mind, let’s move on to some of the issues under discussion.


First some housekeeping. In the June 6th issue I first misunderstood and then misreported the FAA announcements at the Symposium and the Drone Advisory Committee (DAC). It appears that the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) is still on track for September.

The reference to the two-year delay that both Messrs. Elwell and Merkle made from their podiums is not as I reported a delay posting the NPRM for public comment (though there have been several,) but an estimate of the time that the FAA will need to complete the rulemaking process after the NPRM. While the messaging was less than deft, the message is in no way surprising. In fact, the timeline is aggressive – many rulemakings take three years.

Following Skyward CEO Mariah Scott’s rousing second day keynote, We Are The Pioneers: Building Collaboration in the Sky; the first panel up was Remote ID Solutions, ably moderated by Gabriel Cox, Drone System Architect, Intel.

The panel reported on the progress of the ASTM F38 Standard Group, which has been working to define a Remote ID standard. By all accounts, the work should be completed by the end of the summer.

Look at the slide headed Guiding Principles. You will see that the standard is closely aligned with the principles I have already discussed. It is important to understand that beyond answering the basic question “Is that guy cooperative?” RID is also essential for DAA (detect and avoid), separation and a host of related issues.

While the standard has a provision for RID authentication, it leaves the details of the implementation to the manufacturer. There is a concern that different implementations will create interoperability issues – hardly an ideal solution for a cornerstone element.

It is important to note that this is being developed as a universal standard – it is not US specific. Which is why the panel was very specific about what they had not addressed:

Specifics left to regulators:

  • Data Access
  • Additional Performance Metrics
  • What to use when and where

In many ways, defining broadcast, network and authentication standards is the easy part. Policy presents a different set of challenges. Simply asking for ever more data, or how many ‘9s’ a technology must achieve to be considered reliable, or requiring a host of mitigations, or considering a myriad of technical options; is not a proxy for determining how RID supports law enforcement and the security agencies. Nor is it a substitute for determining what information will be needed for digital registration.

sample registration card includes a pilot's license, drivers license and health certificate
sample registration card includes a pilot’s license, drivers license and health certificate

On Day One, GUTMA did a live demo of what they call “The Interoperable Drone Registry” with global query and identification features written by GUTMA’s Technical Project Manager Dr. Hrishikesh Ballal. This is an Open Source ‘sandbox’ developed to help move the registration concept forward. It is integrated with the concepts of the ICAO Trust Framework.

Here is a key slide I’ve reproduced for legibility:

Conceptually, what is to be registered?

  • Operator (Company)
  • Equipment (Aircraft)
  • People (Contact, Pilots etc.)

Access the registry

  • People
  • Certifications / Authorizations (e.g. Part 107)
  • Equipment
  • Companies

Take a look at this next slide – the concept of federated UTMs extends to the concept of federated databases that can be linked from the Registry with access specified based on the user type.

slide from the GUTMA demo

Again, the decisions about the necessary data, and access to that data are policy, not technology issues. As one of Saulo’s slides put it, these decisions are “Anchored in State sovereignty.”

Current concepts like the need for both broadcast and networked solutions reflect the guidance provided to the FAA by The Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Identification and Tracking Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) in 2017.

Since then, the FAA, which one speaker characterized as “initially participatory, now not so much,” has regressed to their all too familiar “bring us a rock and we’ll tell you if it’s the right one” modus operandi, saying that they need to see demonstrations of what the standard can do.

At the same time, they are asking for ideas about how to encourage voluntary compliance to the standard until there is a final rule. I find this curious. For one thing, they have not signed off on it. For another, it is not all clear why pilots will want to invest in technology that has not been adopted.

In the hallways, the speculation was that the FAA was likely to offer goodies like waiver approvals to those who indicated their willingness to comply – meaning one assumes to transmit using some yet to be determined piece of gear. Put that way, even if it’s not a rule, it may well be a requirement. I expect this to be a hotly debated topic in the coming months.

The bright side is that it might encourage law enforcement and the security agencies to download the app and start testing, thus ensuring the FAA a plentiful supply of data… And more input as to what is actually needed.

Being an international crowd, few people missed the opportunity to point out that despite starting later, EASA is now rolling out Remote ID across 28 countries.


Dr. Mark Davis leads a discussion at Connected Skies
Dr. Mark Davis leads a discussion at Connected Skies

In his opening keynote, Intel VP Dr. Mark Davis, the technology seer behind the Forum, noted that with their great economies of scale, commercial services (COTS) are well positioned to play a role in aviation with UAS being the first point of contact.

The basic argument for a cellular UTM network is that there are not many (any?) governments that have the will or the budget to build a national UTM system. In the US, repeated attempts to privatize ATC bolsters that argument.

Lorenzo Murzilli’s presentation makes the need very clear:

Connectivity is crucial – air/ground/cloud/infrastructure integration will be the key.

If you don’t know Lorenzo, you will soon – he is the Program Manager, Swiss U-Space Implementation for FOCA (Federal Office of Civil Aviation) one of the best thought out programs I have seen. (U-Space is Euro-speak for UTM)

He is also one of the people behind SORA (Specific Operations Risk Assessment) which can be used to analyze a CONOPS (Concept of Operations) and identify necessary mitigations. Airbus and a Swiss company, SORA Consulting are working on digitizing the process so that it can be integrated into UTM to accelerate the approval process. Lorenzo and NUAIR CTO Andy Thurling will be doing a workshop at InterDrone on the topic.

The Remote ID specification is for a signal that can be read on a handheld device. GSMA’s 300+ members support 8.7 billion connections making it the only way to address the RID requirement with existing technology. (Yes WiFi works for some distance, but if you already have a phone in your hand…) In addition, the cellular industry has already solved many of the problems of international operability. Another big plus is that cellular operates on licensed spectrum.

A GSMA whitepaper makes the case:

Wireless connectivity will be required to deliver many facets of UTM, such as registration and identification, flight planning and approval, the transmission of meteorological information,geo—fencing, geo-caging and tracking.

Intel Labs Senior Research Scientist Feng Xue notes that cellular can “cater to both C2 (command and control) and payload communication needs.” Equally important is that “Network coverage is predictable. UTM can be notified of network adjustments [changes].”

Graham Trickey’s slide demonstrates that cellular services – at whatever speed – can provide the necessary services for regulators, UTM and individual service providers (the yellow box lower right says ‘Cellular network infrastructure’.)

That’s not to say it’s a slam dunk. Among the key results reported from trials conducted by Qualcomm in 2017 demonstrated that:

Received signal strengths for UEs (drones) at altitude are strong despite downtilted antennas in the network. In fact, strengths are statistically stronger for UEs at altitude than for ground UEs because the free space propagation conditions at altitude more than make up for antenna gain reductions.

Of course, a network for operations above 400’ will also be needed to achieve the longer term goal of Universal Traffic Management.

image courtesy of LMT Innovations

And what about 5G? 5G is a millimeter length wave. Very short waves do not do useful things like go through buildings. So provisioning 5G in a dense urban environment will require what I unscientifically call lots and lots of ‘relays and repeaters.’ But I am told that 5G in the air is a happy thing, and as we all know, drones generate lots of data. Is it enough to build a nationwide network? Well, I suppose that depends on what you charge…

In Latvia, they seem to think they can make the numbers work: Latvia’s LMT Developing UTM System Based on 5G Mobile Network.

“We believe that the most safe [sic] and successful real-time communication can be done through the mobile network, particularly in the 5G network, that’s specifically created for UAV-to-UAV (U2U) and UAV-to-Infrastructure (U2I) communication. It follows that mobile operators can play a major role in the development of UTM platforms. LMT is currently working together with the public and private sector to lay the foundations for such an ecosystem.

To visit the LMT site, click here.


Graphic Projected air traffic in 2040 - image courtesy ICAO
Projected air traffic in 2040 – image courtesy ICAO

To many people, airspace is infinite. Contributing to the illusion is the notion that the sky is a 4D space – that because most flights transit instead of hover – the airspace is some kind of renewable resource. In fact, the concept of ‘equitable access to the digital sky’ is based on the idea of ‘finite’, not infinite airspace. How to provide access while maximizing use is one of the questions that will need to be answered.

The discussion is developing along two distinct lines of thought. The first is what we can loosely term ‘moral’ lines. Here there are questions about “How can you fly neighborly?” [sic] Another question is “What does it mean to be a good player? And are you rewarded?” Another is a statement to the effect that “It’s hard to know what’s good, but one can define what’s bad.”

But at tempo, decisions will have to be made in minutes or seconds as an air ambulance, a Zipline blood flight, an Uber Elevate cab and an Amazon Prime Air delivery drone all seek to utilize the same space on top of a building in Seattle at the same time.

The other line of discussion is about programming ‘equity’ into an algorithm. The concept centers on performance-based rules that take into account the capacity of a particular airspace volume, separation concepts based on the performance and equipage of the aircraft involved (lots more standards needed here,) and the other factors necessary to support the process.

As a presenter phrased it, ultimately the question comes down to:

“What should the UTM decide for the operator?”

As one plays out the idea of autonomous systems, it seems clear that some combination of the USS (UAS) Service Suppliers who provide the UTM networks) and the individual CONOPS set by the operators (perhaps with mitigations defined by SORA) will do most of the deciding. Human intervention will become increasingly impractical as one person (and finally perhaps no one) oversees an ever increasing number of missions.

Example of bilateral negotiation – courtesy of NEC

No surprise then that the mind turns to artificial intelligence (AI)to solve the problem. One person who is actively working on this is GUTMA Board Member Shinji Nakadai, a researcher at NEC’s Data Science Research Labs. Shinji told me that he is on one of three teams funded by the Japanese government to explore various aspects of UTM.

Consistent with current aviation practice, the baseline thinking is that utilization decisions will be driven using a ‘first come, first served’ approach. Given the size of some of the fish in the pond, it is easy to understand why many are concerned that this will be inequitable.

One alternative approach is real-time negotiation. The concept is based on game theory and is implemented in AI. The goal of the work is for the AI mediator to create the appearance of fairness to ensure that people are willing to participate on an ongoing basis.

Shinji explained that negotiation has been an integral part of PK’s vision for UTM since the beginning.

He told me that a great deal of work is being done in this area. One use case is to manage the negotiations between suppliers and factory for ‘just in time delivery’. The genesis of this reflects the shortage of labor in Japan which maps well to the ‘closed’ world of UTM running at scale.

As flight plans are filed, they will be analyzed for conflicts. Inherent to deconfliction is the ability for every USS to be able to look across all of the other USS operating in the same airspace. When there is no time for negotiation, such as in the case of two aircraft closing, DAA will be the tool of ‘last resort’. You can read more about Genius: The General Environment for Negotiation with Intelligent Multi-Purpose Usage Simulation, here.

Congratulations to everyone at GUTMA for a terrific event. I am going to leave you with Jonathan Evan’s parting charge:

This is audacious.

Go out and make it happen.

Go out and make history.

Thanks for reading and for sharing. Back issues of Dronin’ On are here.

Have a bang-up Fourth.


Christopher Korody
Editor and Publisher
follow me @dronewriter

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