Marking the rise of UTM (Unmanned Traffic Management) in the 2020s

International crises such as COVID-19 aside, demand for commercial air travel is rising rapidly as developing countries connect millions of people to the global economy alongside burgeoning demand in established markets, with well over a million people flying at any given moment in time. Alongside this growth in both flight and passenger numbers, various aviation organisations are warning of a massive predicted rise in flights conducted by unmanned and autonomous aircraft. By 2030, air traffic flows are predicted to increase by a factor of 10, as autonomous aircraft join existing traffic in the skies.

Airports are quickly evolving as well as the aircraft using them, with the introduction of autonomous cargo flights, package deliveries and air taxis set to become a staple feature of the daily traffic flow. Airports subsequently need to build the kind of infrastructure that allows them a continuous and holistic overview of their increasingly busy skies overhead.

So, despite pockets of resistance and regulatory uncertainty, drones and other forms of automated aircraft are all but destined to become a much more regular feature of our skies, alongside traditional commercial and military flights. With both forms of air-based transport on the rise, there are calls for air traffic control setups of all major airports and airbases to move to a more scalable model that’s better suited to managing these emerging traffic flows.

 

Enter UTM – A better way to manage the skies

While traditional air traffic control management is undertaken by human operators all responsible for their individual sectors of sky, UTM imagines a more networked system of overlapping services, with both automated solutions and human operators working together to fully understand the extent of all traffic flows entering and leaving the system. UTM uses the combined data of its networked systems to conduct deep analysis on its covered airspace, to come up with optimised routes on the fly, while always taking projected demand growth into account. Using the principle of distributed authority, UTM opens up control of the skies for a more collaborative approach between airports, airlines and a widening range of service providers, whose solutions can slot in to adapt to market changes and subsequent requirements of air traffic control operators.

 

Working together to forge the air traffic control solutions suitable for the future of aviation

Naturally, the UTM approach requires enthusiastic buy-in from all manner of stakeholders to be successful. Airports and airlines need to work hand-in-glove with government and security authorities, policymakers, service providers and manufacturers to build wholly scalable aviation infrastructure capable of delivering smooth, safe and reliable air traffic control for both today and tomorrow’s flights. With early adopters already experimenting with various UTM setups, it’s hard to say if one or several approaches will become the industry norm, but what we can say with surety is that significant change is coming. Autonomous and unmanned aerial vehicles represent too much potential value for the aviation industry to do anything other than aim for full integration, making UTM an absolute necessity for the near future as well.

 

This article was created in association with Airport Show taking place in Dubai on 26-28 October 2020. 

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