Q&A: The advent of drones has changed the game for Unifly

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Digital mapping and location services specialist Unifly has lifted the lid on the changes that are set to shape the future of the UAV sector.

While the company, which recently announced a new partnership with HERE Technologies, was founded in 2015 by aerospace experts, a team of airspace controllers, pilots and engineers soon realised they shared a vision to connect all aviators in 2012.

HERE Technologies, a digital mapping and location services specialist, and Unifly hope their drone airspace maps will provide a solution to congestion concerns.

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Unifly will integrate HERE map and location data from the Reality Index into its applications to provide a more robust picture of the low-altitude airspace.

The company’s marketing and communications manager, Ellen Malfliet lifted the lid on Unifly’s business and significant changes within ATM and UTM.

Recent reports suggest UTM will become a more lucrative sector than ATM, what are your thoughts?

Ellen Malfliet: “ATM was never defined or organised to be a “lucrative” sector. The goal of ATM is to ensure safety in the air – to make sure that everyone can travel happily on airplanes.

“With the advent of drones, there are new users and new applications that use the airspace. These new stakeholders need to be integrated in the airspace safely, but this also provides the opportunity to define new services and income streams that were not possible with manned aviation.”

In January the company announced partnerships with HERE, Belgocontrol and the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA), what are the company’s primary objectives from these frameworks and whatever national aviation authorities are you in discussions with?

“The BCAA is the national aviation Authority in Belgium. Belgocontrol is the Air Traffic Controller.

“They will use our platform for multiple purposes:

• registration of drone users and drones
• drone users will be informed about the airspace and the drone regulations
• drone operators will be able to apply for fight authorizations in a user friendly manner. These requests will be processed in a very cost effective and speedy manner.
• ATC will be able to and visualize the flight paths of the drones – like they do with manned aviation
• local authorities will be able to define no-drone zones in real time.

“Drones users not only need to take into account aviation data and aviation related limitations, but also need “real world” data such as roads, obstacles, rivers, buildings etc. This is what HERE provides.”

What are the most significant changes you are observing in the UTM/ ATM landscape?

“The introduction of drones in the airspace creates new challenges:

“Existing procedures and administration process within the ATM environment were never designed for very large number of flying craft.

“ATM was developed with aviation professionals in mind, people who have studied intense aviation related training programs.

“Most drone pilots have limited to no formal Aviation training.

“UTM systems include automation of administrative processes to cater for the large amount of users and a high level of user-friendliness by presenting complex aviation information in an user – friendly, easy-to-understand web-based user interface.”

What can be achieved with UTM that cannot in ATM?

“The sheer volume of drone traffic and the explosive growth of flight requests make it impossible to manage the upcoming workload manually. The only viable long-term solution is to automate the drone flight approval process. The flight approval process does not necessarily require human intervention. An automated approach saves resources to manually treat the special cases where an automated response is inadequate or impossible.

“The same holds true for real-time flight management. Automated UTM is the only way to connect all stakeholders so everyone has the relevant information for their situation at any given moment.”

How is the company looking to expand the presence of UTM across the sector? Are there new territories Unifly would like to enter?

“Between the national authorities and ANSPs, there still is a vast number of local authorities and UTM service providers who can greatly benefit from a tool to manage their local airspace. They also want to be to register drones and users, provide flight planning tools, flight approval services and local flight monitoring. Unifly seeks to bring real-time, dynamic local low-level airspace management with collision alerting to local airports, councils, police and first responders globally.”

You state that your focus is always on safety for all stakeholders. How do you balance the provision of safe, effective software applications with making a profit as a commercial business?

“The two are intrinsically connected. As any business, Unifly needs to make a profit to be able to continue to exist and expand its activities. However, UTM is a tool that facilitates denser traffic of automated drone operations over longer distances as well as over challenging environments such as cities. As such, the U-space initiative is essential for the development of the drone services market.”

What are the biggest barriers to the adoption of your software?

EM: “For all aviation authorities, air traffic controllers and UTM service providers, the introduction of a UTM system represents a major change in their operations and has significant long-term consequences. They want to make sure they use the correct technology partner. Selection processes are long and very thorough to avoid mistakes.

“We are proud that we have already been selected by four ANSPs in Europe so far as the basis for their UTM strategy. The experience that we are now building with these operational UTM systems will serve new customers.”

The company was only founded in 2015 – as a relatively new start-up how difficult is it to gain market share in the industry?

“The development of our architecture already started in 2012. The prototype of our system was entered in a prestigious contest in 2014 in the ATM world: the “SWIM Masterclass”.

“The fact that we came in second out of 81 contest – after Airbus, but before Boeing – established our name within this industry.

“As a result, we have been invited to participate in European U-Space research programs.

“Unifly has been selected by leading European ANSPs to provide core UTM management technology as well as end-user apps.

“The ANSP-branded apps are available now in Germany, Denmark and Austria. The Belgian app will be live by summer.”

You’ve raised 6.3m euro in funding since your launch, including a large investment from Terra Drone in Japan. What is the investment being used for?

“We use it to fund the exponential growth of Unifly. Since our start about 18 months ago, the company has grown to 30 employees. The market is ready for UTM solutions but it is something that requires a lot of effort as everything is groundbreaking so we have to create the framework.”

How significant is Terra Drone’s involvement in Unifly? What stake does it have and to what degree is it operationally involved in shaping the business?

“Terra Drone is not just our investor but first and foremost our partner. As such, Terra Drone is instrumental in our approach of the Far East market, especially in Japan and the surrounding countries. Terra Drone has a stake of less than a quarter of Unifly. We greatly appreciate the trust and especially the knowledge sharing as we believe the only way to be a truly global player is to be open and collaborate with others.”

Tags : air traffic managementATMEllen MalflietuniflyUnmanned traffic managementUTM
Emma Calder

The author Emma Calder

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