ICAO sees arrival of urban aerial mobility and UAV technology as ‘evolution’ rather than revolution, but UK study highlights need for unified regulation

Speaking at a high level panel discussion on the future of air transport at the Conférence de Montréal, ICAO Secretary General Dr Fang Liu emphasised that aviation’s key drivers for change which are guiding the sector’s response to the challenges of future aviation include the doubling of global flight volumes projected during the 2030s and the complexity and diversity of the new commercial space and remotely-piloted entrants needing to be integrated in the skies alongside conventional air services.

On the subject of remotely-piloted entrants, Dr Liu said ICAO sees the arrival of urban aerial mobility (UAM) and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology as “as an evolution” rather than a revolution. She added, “By this I mean not only the millions of smaller drones being used for an almost endless variety of purposes around the world today, but also many other aircraft types. At one end of this spectrum we’ll see autonomously controlled aircraft navigating residential and urban environments to taxi us to local destinations and deliver goods.”

This part of Dr Liu’s presentation is of particular note because her words contrast to a degree with discussions this month at a Parliamentary Joint Select Committee (Science & Technology and Defence) on the use of drones in the UK and their security implications.

During these proceedings expert witnesses indicated that there are in fact very few examples of unmanned vehicles being developed for use as personal taxis or to deliver goods directly to consumers at home (‘the final mile delivery’ as it is known). That is a technology that lies very much in the future and which would be subject to very strict regulation that has not yet even been considered in most countries.

The other side of the coin is the rapid development of smaller drones for use within an airport environment for the collection and delivery of goods and parts, and also for outside such environments for delivery of medical supplies, surveying work (structures, pipelines) and emergency work such as finding people lost in harsh environments.

However, that development in the UK is subject to scrutiny by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) primarily on safety grounds. Each country will have its own set of regulations governing such activities although there will be recommendations from the appropriate UN body (i.e. ICAO) just as that entity provides Standards and Recommended Practices across the aviation spectrum.

Investigations have already begun into how UAVs and UAMs (collectively Unmanned Traffic Management or UTMs) might be integrated into ATM functions, in many countries. In the UK the main project was ‘Operation Zenith’ which took place at Manchester Airport involving the airport, NATS (National Air Traffic Services), Altitude Angel, an aviation technology company specialising in UTMs, and 13 delivery partners from the public and private sectors. Eight different scenarios for UTM utilisation were examined (for example, ‘on-airfield delivery’ and ‘safeguarding’ [the detection of unauthorised drones]).

What stood out in this Parliamentary Committee exchange is that the CAA is not directly concerned with security aspects of drone use. The focus on safety has been prompted by the events at London Gatwick Airport in Dec-2018 when multiple sightings of one or more drones closed down the airport completely.

The message coming out of this Parliamentary exchange is that the ramifications of the UAV technologies and the ever-evolving uses to which they can be put is likely to tax both national and pan-national authorities, and ICAO, for some considerable time to come. Just as the Boeing 737 MAX may not be flying any time soon in the airspace of many countries even if the FAA approves it the US, ICAO must be aware that the security implications of UAVs that are so far avoiding international scrutiny may well prompt national governments to draw up and implement their own rules, and they may be draconian.