With the introduction of any new technology comes disruption as well as benefits. This is certainly true for unmanned aviation, which covers everything from small drones to a more holistic urban air mobility (UAM), including air taxis and electric helicopters. While drones have recently been in the headlines due to the disruption they have caused, arguably the benefits of drones still offset the negative impact they can occasionally have. For instance, using them to deliver life-saving supplies, such as blood, to remote areas or surveillance activities in dangerous places is invaluable.
Drones represent a fantastic opportunity to advance aviation in general. They are making the industry look at how it can do things differently and in most instances, for the better. The number of applications are extensive. However, drones are also catalyst for three major opportunities: automation, electrification and the democratisation of low-level airspace.
While the first two are well documented, the democratisation of low level airspace is topic that deserves more debate. It refers to the automation of not just the airframe, but also of the airspace management tools and the finance models that govern them. Arguably the current set-up in the aviation sector creates some inherent structural challenges that are stifling its ability to make the most out of the opportunities created by unmanned aviation.
At present airlines pay a fee to use the airspace and this is passed on to the consumer. National air navigation service providers (ANSPs) are largely funded by this charge, on a ‘cost plus’ basis, and their operations as well as funding structures are heavily regulated. However, with projected aircraft numbers and movements increasing at least ten fold in the next five years, it is not feasible for the airline passenger to continue to pay for the air space use of both manned and unmanned aviation.
In order for unmanned aviation to develop further in its applications and realise the benefits it can offer for the travel sector and to mobility as a whole, it is important to make sure the financing models, along with the supporting regulatory frameworks, are revised. Rather than looking at drones and unmanned aviation as a burden on the airline charge there is an opportunity to look at changing a system of which the principals have not changed in the last 50 years. Once achieved, more people and companies can access, enjoy and benefit from the airspace, therefore lowering the cost per aircraft movement and making it better for everyone.