From Drones Beware to Flight Aware with Unifly

Read Time: 12 minutes

Marc Kegelaers, CEO, Unifly – www.unifly.aero

How one company is raising the level of awareness in the airspace

As more and more drones take to the sky, and ambitions for drone delivery services and beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations, the airspace will become increasingly congested. Concerns over hazards to commercial manned aviation are well-founded with calls for regulation. At the same time,  regulators are cautioned not to introduce rules that will run roughshod over an emerging industry full of potential. A solution is needed to inform drone operators where they can and cannot fly, and allow for the safe integration of drones into the airspace – a solution called UTM, or unmanned aircraft system (UAS) traffic management.

In this installment of the Vantage Point interview series on innovation in aviation, I speak with Marc Kegelaers, CEO of Unifly, an award-winning software company that has developed such a solution – a platform for the safe integration of drones into the airspace.

Q:  How did you initially come across the technology and the application of the technology that’s now Unifly?

My background is in aviation. I’m a flight instructor, and for 10 years I ran a flight school that trained professional pilots. While there, I started a department to train pilots for aircraft without pilots, i.e. drones. That was bringing in some publicity for the school, and at an exhibition in Asia, I came across a few young guys – air traffic controllers and a scientist – who had this idea for a traffic management system for drones. They already had a good prototype, which apparently had won some international prizes. They wanted to create a company and asked if I was prepared to be their CEO. I thought, “Well, this is a good idea!” I looked at the technology, what they were doing, and their plans and ambitions. That was in July three years ago, when I decided to join in as a CEO and shareholder. The company was started a month later, and two months after I started to work full time for Unifly. I had to unwind my function as CEO of the flight academy, so I handed that over to a successor, then started to work on the Unifly initiative full-time in October 2015.

Q:  We are experiencing a renaissance of innovation – digitalization, artificial intelligence, autonomization,…. How do you see Unifly within this broader picture of innovation and what’s going on outside of your immediate area of play?

I’d like to think that we are a ground-breaking company. We are very innovative. If you look at what is happening in the world, there’s a fourth Industrial Revolution going on whereby many activities will be driven by robotics and artificial intelligence. We are very much a part of that.

One of the key challenges that exists today is that you have this drone technology which is advancing at a very high pace – and everyone knows that drone technology and robotics are going to be very important – but specifically with drones, they are coming into a world where there is already a lot of traffic. Drones will have to comply with the regulations and rules of the aviation, so it remains safe.

The challenge we have, and I think the entire industry has, is that on one hand you have the world of aviation, which is very safety-driven, but air traffic controllers and pilots have never had to deal with drone operators. On the other hand, you have drone operators who have never been aware of the regulations and the rules that exist in aviation that make it very safe, who now want to have access to the airspace. So we have two different worlds: one relatively conservative world driven by safety, and another world which is innovative and moving very fast, not fully aware of all of the safety rules. Marrying those two totally different worlds, that’s the big challenge. But it’s now happening in aviation, and I’m sure that will happen everywhere in the world.

Look at all the challenges that are now present in the world of autonomous cars, for instance. The technology exists for cars to be driven autonomously, but how do you mix the traffic of autonomous cars with the traffic of non-autonomous cars? That’s the big challenge. In the world of aviation, we are addressing this challenge.

Q:  How do you bridge those two worlds? Does it require a change in mindset that the more traditional industries have adopted over time, or do you see the innovators having to adopt a different mindset?

It’s both. Every traditional industry has its way of doing things, which work fine. The aviation industry is very safety-minded, with good ATM (air traffic management) systems and so on and so forth, and that works fine. Now with new technology, there’s this mindset that needs to change.

Two years ago, I was at a big conference where you had CEOs of large ATM organizations, and questions were asked of the audience. One of the questions was, “Do you think technology will change the nature of your industry within the next 20 years?” I was baffled to hear one-third of the audience say, “No, we don’t think that technology will change the nature of our industry.” That, to me, says that within those classical industries, there’s still a mindset among people who do not see that there’s a lot of technology out there that can actually help them become better and automate more processes. And not only in the aviation industry – I think in many traditional industries that’s the case.

Q:  Indeed, we’ve seen the same in the car industry, until Elon Musk came along and introduced the concept of the electronic car and things started to change. Even going back to telecommunications, you had the postal, telegraph, and telephone service (or PTT) – monopoly service providers that the public was not at all happy with for the level of service and the cost. I think, only when that industry was deregulated, have we seen the kind of things that we now have, our smartphones and so forth. Do you see that kind of institutional deregulation having to take place to make real change happen in aviation? Particularly, I’m thinking about ATM and the interfacing between ATM and UTM

It will take place. What is happening is that we, as a company, are creating the technology to provide highly automated air traffic management for large amounts of autonomous devices. That’s what we’re doing. That’s where we’re going with our technology. Once you’ve done that with large numbers of autonomous drones flying in very difficult airspace, low level airspace, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that you could actually take that technology and start using it for traditional manned aviation. My guess, and I think this will happen, is that the technology we’re building now will gradually – not overnight, but gradually – find its way into the management of manned aviation.

The technology we’re using is vested in Internet technology, which makes a UTM system much more affordable and accessible than an ATM system. The technological change that happened in the telecommunications industry about 30 years ago is starting to happen in the world of aviation. The transformation will be a bit slower than what happened in telecommunications because of the safety aspect. You must be very careful that you do not innovate as rapidly as in the telecommunications industry, because you still have manned aviation transporting large numbers of people in the air. You cannot afford to have accidents. In the telecommunications industry, if you lose a data packet, well, you lose a packet. There’s no harm there. The software will say, “Oh, I lost a packet,” and it will send a new packet. In manned aviation, you cannot lose an airplane. That’s why the transition will be a bit slower, but it will come for sure.

Q:  When we look at the softer side of things – the people element – I would hazard to guess that the way Unifly is organized and how you do things is quite different from a traditional ATM technology company or an air navigation service provider. Aside from the technology, it’s also about people and how we work to get things done. I’m thinking particularly in terms of a more agile approach to software development that’s now permeating to other areas of the business. Do you see change taking place in that area as well?

Yes. To ask me purely from the perspective of the man/machine interface and the world of air traffic management, the user interfaces all assume that the person that is manning the systems has had years of training and is an ATM professional. That means it can be very complex, because the person has been trained.

Now in the world of UTM, you are interfacing with a world of people that have no knowledge, or very limited knowledge, of aviation and air traffic management. Still, you want to give them the same information as is now being used in the world of manned aviation, but in a very, very user-friendly manner. That’s one of the big transformations we are making happen.

Also, in the ATM industry or the aviation industry in general, it is expected that the number of flights will double between now and 2030. Already today we’re seeing record numbers of flights flying through the airspace, which puts a strain on the entire ATM system, because all the procedures in the world of air traffic management are manual procedures and involve people talking to people. The growth of manned aviation will require much more automation than is currently the case, and we’re building the foundation for this with UTM. So, it’s interesting times ahead.

From a development point of view, we use agile software methodology, the same methodologies as are used in developing Internet-type applications. In very short turnaround times, we use a Spring Methodology that enables us to be very quick and still have very high quality.

Q:  So, when you’ve signed up with a new client, such as an ANSP, what would be the average turnaround time to provide them with the necessary tools to start managing, or having some oversight over drones in the airspace?

From a technology point of view, not very much. The fastest we’ve done this is about six weeks. The challenge really is with the organization itself. One of the challenges that an ANSP or CAA (civil aviation authority) has is the processing of flight plans for flight approvals. There is a flight plan system that is used in manned aviation, and it involves a manual process – your flight plan gets looked at by someone, and that someone approves it. That’s based on a certain number of flights per day, per week, and so on.

Now with drones, what we’ve seen initially is that the ANSPs and the CAAs have wanted to use their existing processes of flight approvals and apply that to drones as well. But, guess what? They did not anticipate that the number of requests for drone operations would be much, much, much higher than the number for manned aviation. So, what we are providing are the tools to automate a lot of the processes within an ANSP and a CAA. However, the organization has to accept it and processes have to be created or modified so that they can work with these new tools. The delays we see, or the length of time it takes to implement our software, is not technology-related, and we already have quite a bit of technology available. It’s about presenting the technology to the client, having them work with the technology, and for their organization to define internal processes to make sure that they can use the technology as often as possible. That’s the challenge we have. Typically, we work with an ANSP, and they use our systems for a while in tests and trials – not to test and trial the technology itself, because it works – but to test and trial their internal procedures, to decide who will do what and who will have what responsibility, and how to manage the different users of the system.

Q:  Would you say that it’s then a bit of a journey for the two partners – Unifly and the client – towards solutions that are needed as part of an iterative process? In other words, there is a tendency within traditional businesses to want to buy a complete system or a complete solution as opposed to pursuing a more agile methodology of iterative testing and development. Is this mindset something you’re up against with some of the more traditional organizations you deal with?

No, in fact what we have is a complete system. But, implementing a complete system is a big, big task and we’ve created a methodology to implement the system in phases. The first phase is always, get the public informed about aviation rules and regulations, and where a drone operator can and cannot fly. That’s something that can be turned around very, very quickly. That’s usually the first phase.

The next phase is getting people to issue flight plans. We build function after function so that ultimately you get a full-blown system, possibly after a year or a year-and-a-half. The initial implementations can already be available after a few weeks. So, our experience is in fact that the ANSPs tend to want to work in a phased approach where they say, “Okay, in phase one we want to do this, then in phase two we want to do this.” The only problem with such an approach is that sometimes – as we’ve seen in other industries that have taken this approach – you can end up with piecemeal solutions. For example, just for providing information to operators they use one vendor, for tracking they use another vendor, and then for other functions, other vendors. So, they end up using isolated solutions for individual problems without thinking of the bigger picture. This usually means we have to convince an ANSP to think of the bigger picture and make sure all of the problems they want to solve are addressed in an integrated fashion rather than having a series of piecemeal solutions.

Q:  So, it’s really about the partnership relationship you build with your clients that is quite important. Having that trust there, I think would be a key issue for evolving the solutions that may need to be built. Would that be a true statement?

Yes, that’s very much a true statement. The entire process of implementing a complete UTM system with an ANSP is quite intense. Luckily we now have experience with several customers. We also are involved right now in several research programs in Europe that deal with UTM. We are seen as a company that knows about drone traffic management. We know about manned aviation because that’s the world we came from. So, we are seen by large organizations – ANSPs and CAAs – as a valuable partner that can actually bring a lot of value and knowhow to the table, helping them to tackle this quite complex UTM problem.

Q:  You’re not the only game in town, of course. There are other UTM providers. Do you see potentially, not necessarily a monopoly service provider model develop, but more of a competitive landscape where you have different systems within a certain geographic region – much like you have with the mobile phone networks where you’ve got a federation of systems able to interface with each other? Do you see that kind of a model develop eventually?

Ultimately, that will be the model, but it will take some time. The system and technology that we have developed takes that in mind. There will be in an area in a country, in a region, where there will be multiple UTM systems. So, we’ll be able to say, “Okay, I want to be a customer of A or B or C.” There will be different levels of service or different services that people can buy from different UTM service providers. Specifically, in the United States that is the model that has been chosen from day one. In Europe and other parts of the world, it’s first and foremost the ANSP that wants to make sure aviation safety is guaranteed, so they take the initiative. But ultimately, there will be a time when multiple UTM service providers will exist in a country. However, there will always be some level of oversight provided by the national aviation authority.

We must remember that the aviation authorities have the responsibility for ensuring the safety of the airspace. This responsibility does not just go away with the advent of drones. On the contrary, they now have an additional problem that they need to solve. Some ANSPs have taken the view that the only thing they want is to ensure everyone has a same exact aeronautical data, and that the ANSP does the coordination with manned aviation and all drone operator interfacing would be done by the UTM service provider. Other ANSPs have said “no” to this from the beginning, and that they want to do all of the interfacing with the drone operators as well.

Q:  It’s been an interesting ride so far, but I’m sure there have been some real challenges along the way. What are some of the lessons learned that have resulted in a different approach than originally thought?

So far, the trajectory has been quite unique in the sense that what we set out to do from the beginning, we are still thinking of doing that. One of the biggest lessons we’ve had is that initially when we started the company, we wanted to build, first of all, a product for the drone users to do planning and so on so forth, but we saw very quickly that that was not the best approach.

The best approach was that first and foremost we have to have a good, solid backbone that will be able to process large amounts of information, and be able to process that information in real time as the system for mission critical applications. Once you have that and you’ve created that as an open platform, then you start adding user interfaces. That’s something we learned after a few months. It’s having that very solid backbone – that open platform – that made us quite successful.

The other thing that we’ve learned is – listen to the customer, listen very carefully to what he wants because he’s very clever. We also learned that as a ground-breaking company – a very innovative company – you must be an evangelist. This is new technology and we’re probably the first to build a lot of experience in UTM. I think one of the roles that we have as a company is to say, “Okay, the management of drones is a very complex thing to do, but these are the ways to do it.”

Q:  You continue to get a lot of interest, I suspect, from other entrepreneurs, but also from venture capital. How does that aspect of the business look for you?

Yes, we get a lot of press, and a lot of interest from potential customers. We literally have contacts all over the world. We get contacted by VCs quite a bit who would like to invest in our company, and by universities and such, who invite me to speak about what we do, how to create an innovative company, and how we get the message out to potential customers all over the world.

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