The challenges of drone ATM integration

Picture of Vincent Lambercy
Posted by Vincent Lambercy

The FAA reports 781,781 registered drones in the USA alone, outnumbering aircraft four to one. As their numbers grow, air traffic control officers (ATCOs) are entering uncharted, and potentially dangerous, territory as drones increasingly enter controlled airspace.

Uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) bring transformative capabilities, notably in delivery, surveillance, and urban mobility. However, these new technologies also impose significant challenges on existing ATM systems, from managing increased air traffic to ensuring safety protocols are met.

This article examines how drones are being assimilated into controlled airspace, focusing on the financial impacts and the regulatory measures necessary for their safe integration alongside regular aircraft.

Defining the challenge of UAV integration

The 2021 situation at Helsinki Airport, when a drone flew close to an aircraft wing while the aircraft was taking off, is a prime example of the potentially disastrous consequences of poorly managed UAV activity.

For controllers used to piloted aircraft operating either VFR or IFR, one significant hurdle is Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations, where drone operators can’t actually see the drone they are controlling or, indeed, where there is no human operator at all. This development pushes the boundaries of current ATC practices and requires the rapid adoption of new technologies to ensure safe and efficient airspace management.

However, it’s not just about tracking these uncrewed aircraft - it’s about merging them with the existing air traffic flow, which is a much more complicated endeavour. This will require both procedural adaptations and technological innovations, from advanced radar systems capable of detecting smaller drone signatures to communication protocols that bridge the gap between piloted and pilotless aviation.

Where will the funding come from?

Funding the integration of drones into ATC systems is a huge challenge. As Pasi Nikama, Senior Vice President at Fintraffic ANS, notes: "There are still a surprisingly small amount of use cases where money can be made with drones in a way that is acceptable for current ATC."

The key is finding a way to satisfy hobbyist pilots, who prefer minimal fees, and commercial operators, who benefit significantly from drone use and can more feasibly cover ATC service charges. There are several options currently being considered:

  • Subscription services. For businesses reliant on drones, subscription models offer reliable access to controlled airspace, essential for commercial operations like deliveries or surveillance. This approach secures consistent revenue for ATC and provides businesses with predictable operating costs.
  • Per-use fees. Aimed at occasional drone users, like real estate agents or farmers, per-use fees match the infrequent nature of their operations. This avoids the need for regular payments and offers operational flexibility.
  • Government funding and grants. Government support is crucial in the early phases of drone integration. For example, France’s investment in UAV defence systems shows how initial funding can ease the financial strain on ATC and drone operators alike, allowing the development of a robust, efficient integration framework.

UAV regulations and policy

In Europe, the regulatory landscape for drones is evolving under the guidance of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which is at the forefront of shaping policies for drone integration into airspace. EASA's initiatives focus on airspace segregation and conducting comprehensive risk assessments to allow drones to operate alongside piloted aircraft. These efforts are crucial for establishing clear boundaries and protocols that ensure the safety and efficiency of all air traffic.

Balancing this need for safety with innovation remains a central challenge for regulators. The goal is to protect public safety without hindering the potential for technological advances in drone capabilities. This balance requires adaptive policies that can accommodate the rapid pace of innovation in the drone sector while ensuring that safety remains the primary concern.

International collaboration will be a vital component in this process, as we will need harmonious regulatory frameworks across borders. Having a consistent regulatory environment, rather than one that is balkanised into different regions or countries, will not only enhance safety but also support the growth of the drone industry by removing unnecessary barriers to entry.

The role of municipalities in UAV integration

Municipalities and city authorities play a crucial role in the integration of UAVs, often controlling or influencing the airspace where drones operate. According to Pasi Nikama, "The involvement of local governments in shaping drone policies is essential. They understand the local needs and complexities better than anyone." Municipal experiments, such as using drones for medical deliveries or traffic management in urban areas, provide valuable insights into effective integration strategies. These local initiatives not only test the viability of drone applications but also help refine regulatory approaches and safety protocols.

As cities continue experimenting with UAVs, their experiences contribute to a broader understanding of how drones can be incorporated into daily life and business, ensuring their benefits are maximised while minimising risks to public safety.

How are different countries tackling the UAV question?

Countries worldwide are taking different approaches to include drones in air traffic management systems, influenced by their unique regulations, funding, and technology. Current initiatives include:


Estonia stands out for its proactive stance on drone integration, particularly in its capital, Tallinn, where the airport's proximity to the city centre has required fast thinking by EANS, the Estonian ANSP. The Estonian approach focuses on conducting detailed risk assessments to understand the potential impacts of drone operations within controlled airspace.

This methodology enables regulators to identify areas where drones can operate with minimal risk to aircraft, allowing for more flexible use of airspace. By focusing on risk rather than blanket restrictions, Estonia is developing a model that balances safety with the economic and social benefits of drone technology.


France is at the forefront of integrating UAVs into its national airspace through regulatory innovation and strategic partnerships. The French government has implemented a progressive regulatory framework that facilitates UAV testing and commercial operations, particularly in rural and suburban areas. France's civil aviation authority, the DGAC, has been actively collaborating with UAV companies to trial different use cases, from agricultural monitoring and defence to delivery services.

This proactive approach not only promotes the practical application of UAV technology but also helps to refine the regulatory environment. By embracing these advancements, France aims to create a robust infrastructure that supports UAV integration while ensuring public safety and privacy.

The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is exploring the concept of drone superhighways, a network of predefined corridors designed specifically for uncrewed flights. This initiative aims to create a safe and efficient pathway for drones to navigate between cities, reducing the risk of conflict with piloted aircraft.

By establishing these corridors, the UK is not only enhancing the safety of its airspace but also laying the groundwork for a scalable and sustainable funding model for ATM services tailored to drones. This forward-looking approach demonstrates the potential of infrastructure investment to support the growth of drone operations and the broader goals of air traffic management.

Time for change

Solving the challenges of drone integration into ATM systems demands collaboration from all stakeholders. It's imperative to continue the dialogue and push for innovation to overcome financial, technical, and regulatory hurdles. Together, we can pave the way for a future where drones enhance aviation safely, efficiently, and inclusively. With the right frameworks, the skies may look very different ten years from now.

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