UTM in Norway - Axel Knutsen - Avinor ANS

Picture of Vincent Lambercy
Posted by Vincent Lambercy

Our guest is Axel Knutsen, Vice President unmanned Traffic Management at Avinor Air Navigation Services in Norway. Axel, welcome to this episode.

Vincent, Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

And with you Axel, we will talk about UTM drones, drone operations in Norway, volumes and so on. But before we go into that I just wanted to ask you if you can introduce yourself and Avinor ANS,

Absolutely. As you mentioned, my name Axel Knutsen I've been working for Avinor ANS the last 12 years. Started my career as an air traffic controller, ventured into remote towers and ended up in drones and UTM around three years ago. Avinor ANS is the ANSP in Norway. We provide ANS services like air traffic controllers, engineers, radar data, etc., to a majority of the airports in Norway.

UTM is obviously one of the hottest topic nowadays in air traffic management and we see a lot of countries showing what they are doing, what their status is, and a lot of companies placing them as the leader. So what is the statues of UTM deployment in Norway? Who are the major players here?

The major players in Norway is Avinor ANS. We are the only ones providing a UTM solution today in Norway we have teamed up with the Frequentis which you probably know and there are subcontractor Altitude Angel in providing this system. So we are the only ones actually doing something in the a UTMs area today here in Norway.

So you prefer to go for the model with a central UTM and you were not opting in for the European model sometime proposed to have different players and a lot of open markets?

We will follow whatever the regulation is, if it's centralized or decentralized so to say. But the fact that the market today is that there isn't very much players who are interested in doing this in a broad or small market, which Norway is. So the way to go forward with the market has been to introduce this option and we have the possibility of connecting whoever wants to do it on the system, on the USSP or CIS. So we will follow whatever the regulations say.

And with the current status, what kind of features does your UTM system provide both to drone operators on one side and traffic controllers on the other side?

The system we built now is with Frequentis and Altitude Angel is sort of a basic setup. It's an advanced system, but it offers the basic services, the U one and U2 capability. The main focus for the drone operators is to receive the information on where they're allowed to fly who they should contact, what the airspace looks like, where everyone else is flying if they're a drone operators. And for air traffic controllers the main reason is to actually have this visualized instead of having it on a pen and paper yellow sticker notes, emails, etc. and telephones. The tricky thing inside is that we actually allow drone operators to request access to the airspace digitally and they receive clearance within a couple of minutes from our air traffic controllers. So we eliminate the telephones to emails and then the pen and paper and do everything digitally.

So it means as a drone operator I could send a request via your UTM system, probably app, I guess. It goes all the way to the air traffic controller in the consent tower and then the clearance or request to delay or denial comes back via the same way?

That is correct. We have both a webpage, like a operator portal for more advanced planning and the app for the ad hoc type of the services.

And is it really done by the ATCO or is it done by some assistant or by the shift leader in the tower?

It's actually done by ATCOs in all places. As you probably know, we have some smaller towers in Norway and we have some larger towers. So for the larger ones we'll probably look at using a supervisor or something else. But for the smaller tower, this is done by the ATCO itself.

And apart from real tower operations, where there other parts of Avinor ANS that have been impacted by the rollout of UTM?

We have used a lot of the company to do this just to be safe on how we want to do it as the UTM is so immature in the state of the ATM world, so to say. So we used a lot of time on safety assessment, risk assessment, working a lot with the CAA involving air traffic controllers, engineers. So all of the companies, so to say has been involved in the process, but the main focus is for the, but as far as our controllers and the drone operators.

I can imagine for the air traffic controllers, that's basically one more task to do and some can be very busy. So to give us an idea, what's the typical number of requests that you get? I don't know, on a weekly or monthly?

It's hard to say because it's so many locations. So to say in Norway we haven't started deploying on the smaller locations. Some of them received a couple of requests a week and some have 20 requests per day. So it depends a lot on peak hours, of course. In Norway we have had, we've gone through the winter period now with dark with darkness, etc. So things are shifting to gear up. Now we have handled roughly around 1000 requests now in the system a bit more than that. But those are the real operators to say and not the testing of it. So in the system we have generated somewhere between one or two thousand requests and 1000 of them have been external customers just to test it. So it's for some airports 20 a day maybe. And now those once or twice a week.

You mentioned darkness and line of site is obviously a concern when operating drones do you allow drone operations at night?

Yes, the CAA has approved drone operations at night. So we allow it as well as long as they follow the rules and regulations supplied by CAA or us on this one.

But it still means if it's 20 per day at a busy airport, it means basically one request per hour, probably a bit more. Because I imagine pilots don't fly between two and five in the morning. So that could become actually a lot of work for the ATCOs, right?

Yeah, most of the flights is our estimate between nine in the morning and up to five or six something like that. But the big majority is between 10 and two. So if we have 20 requests, I would say 70% between 10 and two. So there is peak just like with man traffic there's peak hours for this.

That's interesting that we're already talking about peak hours for unmanned traffic

Yeah, absolutely.

Do you have a view what kind of flights are these? Because I'm a bit surprised by the high numbers. Are these photo flights, inspections or other activities?

There is a nice variety to it. The main things is once you already mentioned photo flights, a lot of real estate projects, inspections of various projects, etc. But we have for the larger ones the one having 20 flights or almost 20 flights per day as so max they have a very large drone to be university with a bachelor degree in drones. There is a very active police department using drones, real estate agency and of course the airport is situated in the middle of the city. So everyone who wants to fly drone near the airport is. So that also generates the traffic

That raises an interesting question because I imagine in some cases operators do not stick to the plan or the flight plan or mission, be it on purpose or not. Have you had some cases like that and if yes, so did you react and what is the process to manage this?

The big majority of drone operators do what they want to do or sorry, they do what they intend to do and they fly according to the roofs. We haven't had that many file a flight plan and did something else. It's more that people don't know they have to file flight plan with us like tourists coming to the city or people not really into the aviation community or haven't read any use about the UTM system. So it is a big task to get the information out that you have to ask the tower for a permission, you have to use this app or you have to call etc. But the majority is that people don't know. They actually have to ask just to buy 10 meters above their house or apartment that they don't know when they don't see it as a risk. So that is the big issue that we need to address.

So you mentioned Frequentis and Altitude Angels Angel and I guess you developed your own app and website. Do you see a way in the future to have a standard that would be the app worldwide? Because what you mentioned is very true. If someone comes to Norway, they have to know your UTM system. If they go to Sweden, they probably have to learn about another one. Do you see some harmonization worldwide coming?

Yeah, I think so. I think there's going to be a lot of consolidation in the UTM market. There is a very large crowd now of vendors and suppliers and also a lot of companies doing what we do. You start building something and down the road there will be probably some harmonization and people doing it more standardized. We have chosen Frequentis and Altitude Angels cause they are, they're very skilled in what they do. They have long experience in the ATM world for instance with Frequentis. And we believe that there is gotta be synergy here between the UTM and ATM world. So I think definitely that you're onto something here that there will be some sort of a standard like we do for remote ID for instance now in the drone world that you have to develop some standards, you have to have some interoperability between systems so you don't have to have 20 different apps if you want to fly in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark for instance. So yeah, absolutely. I think there would be something like that.

You mentioned your system is basic for now. Can you tell us what it means? Because for me, the idea that a pilot can submit a flight plan automatically goes to the air traffic controller, run back sounds like almost all what they could want. So what are the next steps that you want that you see in the, let's say advanced programs?

When I say basic, I was more referring to the initial services, so to say U1, U2 capability space programs. So the system itself is quite complex and it's very, very well done by Frequentis and Altitude Angels and ourselves than building it. But the more advanced steps will be actually showing 4D trajectories for instance exactly where the drone is how to manage the airspace when there is much more capacity in or demand into it than it is today. Handling 20 drones a day in one airport isn't really a big problem. The real problem is when there is a lot of BVLOS flights, when we have hundreds or thousands of flights near an airport or near city. Those are the tricky parts and the system today is built to scale for that. But we haven't tested it, we haven't done it. We haven't developed the services that the drone operators need cause we don't know what they need yet. The demand isn't there to demand today is to fly a drone for 15 minutes, take a photo gather some data, do an inspection, and then land again. We have very few requests in Norway of drone fights for more than one hour for instance, or extended BVLOS operations, operations over populated area, a large gatherings of people. But once those are in place, we will actually have to develop more services more advanced services, especially capacity and the reconfiguration of the airspace.

You say don't have a lot of BVLOS request for now because I know Norway has a lot of helicopter traffic to the oil rigs. Is this something where you see drone operators coming obviously with something much more powerful than your standard DJI because it's are probably hours of flight. Do you see a trend towards unmanned?

Yeah, absolutely. We have a lot of BVLOS in Norway, but we don't have them in the system so to say. They still require a NOTAM. They still require, for instance, a segregated airspace like a restricted area, etc. So we don't handle them in the UTM system per se. We have a limit now of if you want to fly above 500 feet or 400 feet, you have to not use the UTM system. We'd have to go into the ATM world, so to say. So that is the reason why we don't handle that much BVLOS in UTM system. But in Norway we have a lot of very good companies flying. For instance, Nordic demand, the first stock exchange, the drone operator in Europe flying from the west coast of Norway. I definitely believe that there will be a market operations to offshore installations like you mentioned a hundred percent certain that will happen at some time. The technology is already there on the drones it's all of the support system around it and the post etc. which will have to drive the demand. But certainly this will happen. We actually did a flight last year with the oil and gas provider on Norway where we had a flight from onshore out to offshore, couple of hours flying time and very nice testing ground for how this could be done in

Can you imagine in the future this would even apply to unmanned air mobility or air taxis or with passengers involved?

Yeah, I think so. Absolutely. I think, a UTM system will be involved here in some way if it's driving everything or if it's up to the U-space service provider, so to say, or the data analyst into it. Not sure the regulation will have to have an opinion on that, but I definitely think that the A UTM system will evolve handling a lot of this, especially in uncontrolled airspace where we don't have the traffic today over cities which don't have an airport situated nearby, etc. So absolutely that the system will be part of this.

But that's fascinating. It's really interesting to see how that industry will evolve here, high on that. We have a tradition to close up these episodes with a double question, where do you see ATM and UTM five years from now? And also to open a bit to fantasy and imagination in 50 years from now where we all not be active in industry anymore.

Very good question. Interesting one. For the five year period, I don't think that much will change. I think that there will be a lot of new drone services, a lot of excellent products and services being delivered by drone companies and UTM will have evolved some to be able to deliver the services to them. But I still think that we'll have a UTM and an at ATM system. There will be separate for the next five to 10 years. I would assume some capabilities will be loaded into ATM and vice versa. But I think there will be, in the next five years, there will be a large demand for having a, not going to say a separate UTM system, but this UTM system as is today and the services there. It'll not be part of ATM world in that way, but 50 years. Let's see. I really hoped as we cracked the code for urban air mobility in that time and also delivering goods via drones. I expect within five years actually. But the urban air mobility is the really, really tricky one. How we do that with all, all of the questions related, I hope that we have a merger of UTM and the ATM in some way, but we don't have to have two separate systems and all of the costs and all of the factors into that, that we have a unified aerospace in 50 years. I really, really hope that.

It's really interesting how you make the line between ATM and UTM and I guess having people on board will probably one of the key steps towards a merge because the industry will want to be a bit more careful when transporting a person rather than transporting, let's say a pizza or your next Amazon order. Absolutely. Axel, it was pleasure to talk with you. Thanks a lot for that. We'll certainly keep our eyes on Norway and development of the UTM and ATM there.