Integration of drones within civil aviation

Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) or drones are being ever more broadly applied and deployed. Originating from the military arena, RPAS are being used for an ever wider range of civilian tasks. Consequently, there is a growing need to integrate these unmanned aircraft into regular civilian air traffic.

Within the scope of European Single European Sky ATM (SESAR) programme, NLR joined forces with UK-based air navigation service provider NATS and aerospace electronics company Thales UK to study options for integrating drones into civilian airspace. NLR demonstrated that this is possible by way of simulations conducted in 2014 within the scope of SESAR project CLAIRE which stands for CiviL Airspace Integration of RPAS in Europe.

The simulations, conducted in May and October 2014, took place in the virtual environment of a generic airport. In this case, Rotterdam Airport was used. The simulations themselves took place in NLR’s Real-Time Air Traffic Control Research Simulator (NARSIM) and NLR’s Multi-Unmanned Aircraft Supervision Testbed (MUST) RPAS control station. NATS supplied the air traffic controllers, while the simulated RPAS was controlled by a pilot from Thales.

For this purpose, air traffic operating under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) was generated, especially light aviation, where relative positioning and separation are determined visually, as well as air traffic under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), including commercial aircraft that operate under instrument-based rules for navigation and relative separation.

Scenarios were demonstrated with RPAS flights being operated between regular VFR and IFR air traffic around the simulated airport. This also included taxiing on the ground before takeoff and after touchdown.

Both departing and approaching RPAS flights had to be integrated in civil airspace with other air traffic. In addition to regular RPAS operations, all conceivable emergency procedures were evaluated, with the relatively low speed of this type of RPAS (compared to faster commercial air traffic) presenting a disadvantage as well as an advantage, in that air traffic controllers had more time to anticipate the approaching RPAS and take appropriate measures. In addition, air traffic controllers did not encounter difficulties when handing over RPAS air traffic to one another.

Thanks to the good simulation results, UK air traffic controllers will allow the Thales RPAS to share civilian airspace with commercial air traffic around Cardiff Airport in Wales in 2015. The CLAIRE simulations presented a successful run-up for this next concrete step.

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