Satellite Connectivity to Enable New ’Pop-Up UTM’ Service for Drones

A new collaborative partnership will leverage Inmarsat’s L-band connectivity and Altitude Angel’s unmanned traffic management operating system to enable ‘Pop-Up UTM.’ Photo: Altitude Angel

Inmarsat and Altitude Angel are collaborating on a new approach to surveillance that they describe as ‘Pop-Up UTM’ (Unmanned Traffic Management), which could serve as a catalyst for enabling more beyond visual line of sight operations for commercial and civilian drones in the near future.

Initially focusing on emergency services drone operators that need satellite connectivity in human relief or aid related efforts, the concept will primarily leverage Inmarsat’s L-band satellite safety services networks to enable command and control of multiple drones at once. Anthony Spouncer, senior director of UAVs and UTM for Inmarsat, told Avionics that the collaboration is enabled by the use of drones equipped with small L-band antennas that use the same air traffic control frequencies as commercial airliners.

“Two of our partners, Honeywell and Cobham, provide satellite L-band antennas and satcom data units that weigh close to 1 kilogram, and can sit on UAVs using the same network and frequencies for air traffic control that are used by commercial air transport operators. We will then back integrate that position reporting, which runs on our network, into Altitude Angel, so they can then see the position and location of the UAV as well as communicate with the pilot,” Spouncer said.

Once drone operators file their flight plan with Altitude Angel, the flight plan is then submitted to the responsible air navigation service provider (ANSP) for approval. That would provide the type of strategic and tactical de-confliction between drone operators and manned aircraft that is necessary to enable more BVLOS drone operations, Spouncer said. The next steps are to start modifying individual drones with the necessary antennas and satellite data units.

Cobham describes it as UAV 200, one of the antennas referenced by Spoucer, as being capable of delivering Inmarsat Class 4 services, up to 200kbps data and connectivity to enable BVLOS real time visual feedback from video captured by UAVs. The company states that up 1080p HD video can be streamed over Inmarsat’s network using the UAV 200.

Cobham’s UAV 200 antenna can enable L-band connectivity BVLOS drone operations. Photo: Cobham

British commercial drone operators currently use Altitude Angel’s GuardianUTM operating system to file flight plans with NATS. Through the NATS Airspace User Portal, commercial drone operators can request permission to fly airspace that is usually restricted, with help from GurdianUTM.

The Pop-Up UTM partnership between the two U.K.-based companies comes several months after the Civil Aviation Authority published its first 11-page BVLOS guidance for obtaining permission to fly in commercial airspace or beyond line of sight of the operator. Current BVLOS flights in U.K. airspace are limited to special exemptions, although the regulator has provided a baseline understanding of what is required to normalize BVLOS in the future.

“From a pop-up UTM perspective, we will start with blue light type services where, for example, you would established controlled airspace around a search and rescue site within a couple hours of notice. Our L-band network has global coverage, so once we have the location, we can work with Altitude Angel to provide the type of surveillance and airspace de-confliction needs necessary,” Spouncer said.

This is the type of surveillance picture provided remotely to drone operators by Altitude Angel. Photo: Altitude Angel

A key goal is to allow multiple emergency service drones to be operated remotely and without the need for ground-based communications infrastructure. Regions where terrestrial communications networks are not accessible are also a target for the new partnership.

Phil Binks, head of air traffic management for Altitude Angel, recently told Avionics that he welcomes the possible introduction of avionics mandates for the commercial drones that are already using their UTM platform.

“The ability to almost instantly ‘pop-up’ safe, secure and fully operational UTM platforms in any environment, at any time, will give first responders, blue light services and aid organizations a valuable new tool that could save countless lives,” Binks said.

Spouncer said that the data and experience from enabling pop-up UTM for emergency services operators will provide an blueprint for leveraging more of their satellite connectivity for commercial drones, a targeted segment of the industry for Inmarsat, in the near future.

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox