Exclusive interview: Lorenzo Murzilli - Swiss U-Space Program Manager

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Posted by Vincent Lambercy

Lorenzo MurzilliLorenzo Murzilli leads the Innovation and Digitalisation unit at Switzerland’s Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA). Described as a forward leaning leader in aviation, he is known for his unstinting efforts in international collaboration in the field of Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) which are helping harmonise the construct across the world.

FoxATM: Would you describe to FoxATM Market Radar how you came to be involved in UTM?

Lorenzo Murzilli: As part of my job I manage the Swiss U-space Implementation (SUSI) programme. And now I am also transitioning into programme management for the entire drone integration programme. How did I come here? I started as a reliability & maintainability safety (RAMS) engineer working in Italy on Alenia’s civilian projects. Then I moved to Pilatus as a safety engineer working there for six years ending my career as lead safety engineer for the PC-24. I then moved to the Swiss aviation regulator FOCA, working originally on all sorts of safety engineering and certification activities of manned aviation and aircraft. One of my tasks related to the issuance of the Permit to Fly for the Solar Impulse project. That was a big challenge because as you can imagine safety first of course, but on a project like that, if you don't change your mindset - the safety first piece - you don't fly. Right?

When drones started to fly there was a need for a safety guide that would meet the challenge from the safety point of view and sign off these aircraft. And so that was my introduction to innovation.

That was my introduction in to how you innovate within a safety environment – trying to make it work in challenging situations. I moved initially into drone safety both nationally and internationally. We then started to develop more and more approval mechanisms and processes and got involved with international activities, like JARUS, like GUTMA and I’ve never stopped since. I got sucked into this world of drones and then when the U-Space project came about they asked me to lead the project. That's where I am right now.

FoxATM: Could you summarise FOCA’s vision and current status for UTM and maybe for those unfamiliar with the UTM domain, the difference between UTM and U-Space?

Lorenzo Murzilli: For me, it's the same thing. It's basically a new digital way to manage things that fly in the sky. Whether it's an entire space or a given area, conceptually what we're trying to build is a system that is able to manage flying things but in a digital automated way. And the reason why we're doing that, obviously is because drones are putting a strain on the overall system because drones are computers but they don't tend to speak very well to humans. We therefore all realise that not only we but also the air navigation service providers (ANSP) - the traditional ATC domain - in the absence of innovation - won’t be able to deal with them.

So, this is very simply what UTM is going to be. In Switzerland, what we’re trying to do from a federal aviation and regulatory point of view, is not actually to build the system ourselves. What we are doing is facilitating and fostering the initiatives of others including the Swiss ANSP skyguide to build the system.

At the same time, we are providing the whole aviation ecosystem with our vision for how UTM should be built on the basis of what we know is going on at NASA, at the FAA, at EASA and in China and trying to develop our own concept of operations that is compatible with those and then driving the industry in this direction.

Then, of course, the more detailed, the more granular that process becomes the more work there is, because there are changes in regulation, in policy. Work is also needed to influence and improve awareness which involves a lot of time in making this simple vision happen.

FoxATM:A lot of countries are claiming to be at the fore of UTM developments. How do you judge their progress?

Lorenzo Murzilli: It's way more complex to answer than it looks like. Why do I say that? Because UTM is a concept at the moment and the question is how are you going about developing the concept?

I think one of the key distinctions to understand what's going on is that a there is a group of ANSPs, countries, authorities that have decided to build on top of existing ANSP mandates and therefore want to develop a more centralised system with the capabilities that UTM and U Space should have and expand a little the current responsibility of the existing ANSP into this area.

Then there is another group that believes that that is not the right way to do it and is trying to develop a market. As such, they are therefore discouraging initiatives that centralise and support this monopolistic approach. Switzerland is part of the second group. We are not trying to build a system only for skyguide but we are trying to build an ecosystem for several different companies that all together will contribute to UTM service development.

So, to answer your question, you have to distinguish between those pursuing a monopolistic or non-monopolistic environment because clearly, we are not at all advanced in the monopolistic environment. If you ask me whether I have an app that does all this fancy cool stuff which others are doing, then we do not. Is skyguide working on something like that – partially yes, but not to the same extent as others because we are not going in that direction.

If you ask me, do you have a vibrant ecosystem of multiple companies that is pretty unique in the world, then I can say yes, we have that, it’s called SUSI and it is a group of 30 companies collaborating in a decentralised way to develop U-Space services. I think for that kind of environment we have the most advanced model and of course there is the FAA in there as well but we are still definitely among the best countries in the world.

FoxATM: So FOCA sees its role as much deeper than regulating, but also trying to stimulate that whole branch of the industry?

Lorenzo Murzilli: Yes. That’s very much so. FOCA is pretty peculiar as an aviation authority in that it has two mandates: one is obviously safety and oversight. However, there is the other mandate which is the development of the Swiss aviation industry. So, the same office - albeit different divisions - which is doing the oversight is also the same organisation that is in charge of stimulating the national industry.

What we try to do is to make sure that it is possible to create new paradigms, new frameworks for the new technologies so that they can actually be employed in Switzerland but always in a safe way. We want to develop this “safe but possible” kind of approach.

FoxATM: UTM is a concern for ATM players where interaction between the two occur, so mostly around airports. Do you see the need for different rules and regulations there or will they be the same? Do you think ATM and UTM will ultimately merge and become one and the same? Airlines are also critical of UTM being handled by ANSPs because they think it will be funded from ATC fees. What are your thoughts?

Lorenzo Murzilli: The answer to this first question is also very tricky because it depends on the law. It's not solely about the interest of the ANSP, it's also about what the law allows them to do because again the ANSPs are de facto monopolies. And so the challenge is that when you say I am interested in doing it, you also need to be able to be legally allowed to do it. Which means there needs to be a mandate that allows you to do it which means there has to be a law.

So the challenge becomes, is there a reason to have that law, is there a reason to create this mandate and for what specifically do we want to do? If I look at the current EASA Opinion on UTM, it clearly says that if you're providing services that support the central information system, then you cannot also supply services in the market.

Somehow you have to make a choice, you’re either in the monopolistic side of things or are in the market side of things. It's not possible for them to do both and this article is in the Opinion. So then, to answer your first question, is there a need to centralise monopolistically the services provided for drones? I would say almost certainly not. There will be a market of service providers that will provide services to those drone operators depending on the services they need. I have to comply with the law in terms of drone value creation and some market players, some new USSPs will provide that service.

The question of harmonisation of ATM/UTM, that is very, very real and I think it's very important in the industry this year at least. Before coronavirus hit, it was clearly one of the main topics at many industry events for the future because as you say correctly, what you are learning in terms of managing drones can be definitely be applied to Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and flying cars in a digital autonomous way.

FoxATM: So you see ANSPs in a centralised or regulated market still managing drones around airports but everything else will be left to let's say more free market entities?

Lorenzo Murzilli: I think they will be mandated to provide centralised services where those services are needed and clearly to continue operating within their current mandate. So I can give you a simple example of what I'm thinking about: if you look at the way Switzerland approves drones operations within a five kilometre radius of an airport managed by skyguide, that approval is given by skyguide obviously because that's airspace they manage.

This approval is currently done manually by a special flight office. But it could be totally automated and that's one of the things that skyguide is working to develop – an automated approval tool similar to what the US has developed which is called LAANC. So that kind of tool is clearly something that the ANSP will have to provide because they will continue to manage the airspace around their airports.

Will they manage drones that currently do not need approval?  That again depends on their role and as far as the European regulation is concerned, the answer will be no. They will be managed by the USSP in a market environment.

FoxATM: So what won’t the regulator want to see in the free market?

Lorenzo Murzilli: When I say the free market, I don't mean free, unregulated market. I mean the U Space service providers will have to be approved and need all the different checks and balances that characterise any approved player in the aviation ecosystem. It’s more about having the opportunity to have multiple players contributing to this and not only a single one but totally regulated as per the European regulation.

FoxATM: What model will be used to offer the market services you're talking about?

Lorenzo Murzilli: This is the million-dollar question. I've seen many, many different models and the real challenge of all these models is the number of assumptions. If you say a hundred, a thousand or a million, the entire model changes and it's a bit of a chicken and egg situation because you need a functioning UTM system to be able to scale many of those operations that are happening today without the possibility of scale. And so we are in this loop of needing UTM to scale, but if you don’t scale, who pays for UTM?

One of the answers to who’s going to pay is the fact that there is a lot of money in UAM with a lot of big companies such as Airbus for example and Boeing clearly becoming active in UTM because they all realise that to manage their own fleets, they will need digital systems like UTM. So to some extent they will need to become their own U-Space service providers.

This is a very interesting change and where the answer to your question possibly lies. They are two opposite business models at play, one which makes money by providing access to airspace and the other that makes money by using the airspace and considers access to airspace as a cost.

Players interested in the latter model are developing their own management system and by communicating and co-operating with everyone else are attempting to deliver services and manage their own fleet of aircraft as cheaply and efficiently as possible without needing anyone else that charges for the same services.

And the only way to achieve this is to have a market of interoperable USSPs. For drone operators such as an aerial photographer, there will be the UTM as a service and as such they will need to pay a commensurate amount of money for this service.

When looking at the market with these lenses, the success is not any more about that USSP, the success is the business model that goes around the application. 


Click here to continue reading with Part 2 of our interview with Lorenzo Murzilli.

Interview run by Vincent Lambercy. Captured in video, then transcribed, written and edited by Aimee Turner