Unmanned Traffic Management

Building an OpenSky

The New Era of Aviation

The future of aviation is here, and it’s much smaller, more widespread and numerous than we could have ever imagined.

While it may feel like this is a far-off, science-fiction future, it’s not. Take, for example, the 1.6 million drones registered in the U.S. today. That’s about 10 times the number of commercial aircraft that have ever been built. The pace of innovation is stunning and something the aviation industry has never seen before.

The question now is not if drones will be a part of our future; it’s how will we manage this future that is already here?

The New Era of Aviation

The future of aviation is here, and it’s much smaller, more widespread and numerous than we could have ever imagined.

While it may feel like this is a far-off, science-fiction future, it’s not. Take, for example, the 1.6 million drones registered in the U.S. today. That’s about 10 times the number of commercial aircraft that have ever been built. The pace of innovation is stunning and something the aviation industry has never seen before.

The question now is not if drones will be a part of our future; it’s how will we manage this future that is already here?

The Traditional Aviation System Wasn’t Built for “Untraditional” Aircraft

The current system of air traffic management was designed and scaled to meet the needs of modern aviation, where thousands of manned aircraft, filled with passengers, share the skies at any given time.

With the proliferation of drones, the needs of modern aviation are changing. Rather than thousands of flights at any given time, there will be millions. And the variety of aircraft will increase exponentially, with drones for delivery, transportation, hobby and many other applications joining the skies.

There are not enough resources in the world to scale the current system to meet this need. The FAA itself has acknowledged that the current, human-centric paradigm cannot scale. And an alternative approach is necessary.

The answer is not to scrap the current solution, or to build a new one to replace it. The answer is to create an unmanned traffic management (UTM) system that operates side-by-side and exists in harmony with traditional aviation.

The Traditional Aviation System Wasn’t Built for “Untraditional” Aircraft

The current system of air traffic management was designed and scaled to meet the needs of modern aviation, where thousands of manned aircraft, filled with passengers, share the skies at any given time.

With the proliferation of drones, the needs of modern aviation are changing. Rather than thousands of flights at any given time, there will be millions. And the variety of aircraft will increase exponentially, with drones for delivery, transportation, hobby and many other applications joining the skies.

There are not enough resources in the world to scale the current system to meet this need. The FAA itself has acknowledged that the current, human-centric paradigm cannot scale. And an alternative approach is necessary.

The answer is not to scrap the current solution, or to build a new one to replace it. The answer is to create an unmanned traffic management (UTM) system that operates side-by-side and exists in harmony with traditional aviation.

“Given the number and type of UAS operations envisioned, it is clear that the existing Air Traffic Management (ATM) System cannot cost-effectively scale to deliver services for UAS. Further, the nature of most of these operations does not require direct interaction with the ATM System.” FAA UTM ConOps

Diversity of Systems and Operations

To understand how we can create a traffic management ecosystem to support many different types of drones and drone operators, it helps to remember that this type of ecosystem already exists for traffic on the ground.

There were 8,000 registered automobiles in the United States in 1900, which grew to 450,000 by 1910, 8 million by 1920, and 23 million the decade after. Today, there are more than 10x that many automobiles, in all sorts of shapes and sizes that didn’t exist a century ago.

It’s an open ecosystem, with countless auto manufacturers building tools specifically for the type of driver they serve. But at the same time, these manufacturers adhere to set standards and guidelines so their drivers are able to share the road with others.

Regulators knew the methods we used to manage roadways in 1900 couldn’t scale to support the modern automotive industry. And as the world changed -- so did our systems for managing traffic. We invented traffic laws which automate intersections, on/off ramps, and rotaries; we built a highway system strengthened by its consistency to let drivers seamlessly cross state borders; we developed a common language using blinking lights to indicate intent; license plates to identify ourselves; and safety standards so passengers always have access to a seatbelt.

The result after more than 100 years of evolution is a traffic management ecosystem that is (mostly) harmonized around the globe and based on standards, interoperability and automation.

As the drone industry rapidly expands, we’re going to need the same type of collaborative and interactive approach to unmanned traffic management.

To understand how we can create a traffic management ecosystem to support many different types of drones and drone operators, it helps to remember that this type of ecosystem already exists for traffic on the ground.

There were 8,000 registered automobiles in the United States in 1900, which grew to 450,000 by 1910, 8 million by 1920, and 23 million the decade after. Today, there are more than 10x that many automobiles, in all sorts of shapes and sizes that didn’t exist a century ago.

It’s an open ecosystem, with countless auto manufacturers building tools specifically for the type of driver they serve. But at the same time, these manufacturers adhere to set standards and guidelines so their drivers are able to share the road with others.

Regulators knew the methods we used to manage roadways in 1900 couldn’t scale to support the modern automotive industry. And as the world changed -- so did our systems for managing traffic. We invented traffic laws which automate intersections, on/off ramps, and rotaries; we built a highway system strengthened by its consistency to let drivers seamlessly cross state borders; we developed a common language using blinking lights to indicate intent; license plates to identify ourselves; and safety standards so passengers always have access to a seatbelt.

The result after more than 100 years of evolution is a traffic management ecosystem that is (mostly) harmonized around the globe and based on standards, interoperability and automation.

As the drone industry rapidly expands, we’re going to need the same type of collaborative and interactive approach to unmanned traffic management.

The Principles of Unmanned Traffic Management

Preparing for the Drone Industry

This starts with laying the foundational standards. On the ground, these standards are widely known, shared, and adhered to: red means stop, green means go, everyone stays to one side of the road. Aviation authorities should establish rules that bring these standards to life and approve different traffic management solutions that meet their specifications.

Along with these common standards, we need to ensure interoperability. On the ground, horns, turn signals, and brake lights serve the purpose of communicating one vehicle’s intentions to another. A similar, common language needs to exist for drones to facilitate the sharing of intent and other data to enable conflict detection, remote identification and fairness.

Automation is the third piece of the puzzle. While traffic lights and humanless toll collection are examples of the automation that exist in today’s ground-based traffic management ecosystem, the aviation industry has the opportunity to lead by further embracing automation to enhance efficiency, safety and manage scale.

We need to create an air traffic management ecosystem that allows for a diversity of solutions suited to different operators, while ensuring harmony across the ecosystem.

Harmonizing a Global Airspace

Through technology development and real-world operations happening in hundreds of countries, the drone industry has demonstrated how regulators can partner with industry to accelerate unmanned traffic management.

The creation of foundational safety standards and the integration of industry service providers creates the conditions necessary for the unmanned industry to innovate while enabling regulatory oversight. Just like automakers building tools for different types of drivers, the drone industry has companies building tools for all types of flyers, like Wing’s OpenSky. The diversity of systems allows for the efficient use of our shared resources as the right solution is applied based on the need.

Around the world, Wing is already using the OpenSky software application for its own commercial flights. Automatic route-planning and flight monitoring enable Wing to safely deliver goods to consumers in record time at the touch of a button.

Wing also extended some of OpenSky’s services to the broader commercial and recreational drone community. This free version of its OpenSky application provides instant and automated airspace information such as where it is lawful to fly. It is as simple to use as downloading an app from the App Store.

OpenSky is just one of the many solutions that will be developed and optimized to service the breadth of operations and innovation that unmanned aviation brings. This approach shifts the cost of infrastructure to industry, promotes a common language for operations on a global scale, and provides the drone operator a choice in selecting the drone safety solution that best meets their needs.

Harmonizing a Global Airspace

Through technology development and real-world operations happening in hundreds of countries, the drone industry has demonstrated how regulators can partner with industry to accelerate unmanned traffic management.

The creation of foundational safety standards and the integration of industry service providers creates the conditions necessary for the unmanned industry to innovate while enabling regulatory oversight. Just like automakers building tools for different types of drivers, the drone industry has companies building tools for all types of flyers, like Wing’s OpenSky. The diversity of systems allows for the efficient use of our shared resources as the right solution is applied based on the need.

Around the world, Wing is already using the OpenSky software application for its own commercial flights. Automatic route-planning and flight monitoring enable Wing to safely deliver goods to consumers in record time at the touch of a button.

Wing also extended some of OpenSky’s services to the broader commercial and recreational drone community. This free version of its OpenSky application provides instant and automated airspace information such as where it is lawful to fly. It is as simple to use as downloading an app from the App Store.

OpenSky is just one of the many solutions that will be developed and optimized to service the breadth of operations and innovation that unmanned aviation brings. This approach shifts the cost of infrastructure to industry, promotes a common language for operations on a global scale, and provides the drone operator a choice in selecting the drone safety solution that best meets their needs.

UAV Market (USD Billion)

Registered UAV growth globally expected to be a $50M market by 2024.
Source: Bloomberg

The Growth of the Drone Industry

Wing’s perspective is grounded in our experience as an operator. Wing has built an autonomous fleet of small, lightweight delivery drones that safely transport small packages directly to homes in minutes and has conducted more than 100,000+ flights across three continents.

We understand the opportunities that unmanned systems bring, but the drone industry, as a whole, has been slow to progress. We believe that everyone should have access to this shared resource that is the airspace, but our commitment to an open air traffic management ecosystem is not only altruistic. Rather it's good business, since an open airspace creates a steady stream of innovations that attracts users and usage and grows the entire industry.

If our road traffic management systems hadn’t evolved since 1900, very few people would be driving today and relatively new use cases -- like ridesharing and autonomous vehicles -- would never come to fruition. Similarly, without an iterative and open approach to UTM, we fear a future where the sky is only accessible by a select few- severely limiting industry growth and innovation.

With millions of drones joining the skies, we are encouraged to see industry and government across the United States, Australia, Europe and the United Kingdom coming to alignment on an open and harmonized approach to drone integration. It is critical to continue developing and operationalizing UTM in these geographies, but also working together to facilitate learning and further global expansion.

In this new era of aviation, we envision a sky that is accessible to all and an unmanned industry that can advance and thrive worldwide.

In order to radically change transportation through aerial delivery, Wing is invested in building technology, creating standards and contributing to research that will support the air traffic management ecosystem of the future.

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