Researchers at RMIT University have developed a drone equipped with technology that allows it to communicate with an air traffic controller if it loses connection with a remote pilot on the ground.
“The air traffic controller can issue clearances or tell it to hold or anything required for it to travel safely in the airspace. And it can do that exactly like a main pilot would, so it has the on-board decision making and other aspects that allows it to think and act like a pilot,” said Dr Reece Clothier, leader of the RMIT Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Research Team.
“We have provided the drone the ability to talk and think itself should the remote pilot on the ground not be able to talk to an air traffic controller. And that’s quite a common situation. You have communication outages between the ground station and the drone, for whatever reason the communication can be lost with the drone itself.”
In a statement, Dr Reece Clothier, leader of the RMIT Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Research Team, said drones needed to be able to fly safely alongside other airspace users without causing disruption to air traffic management.
‘The majority of air traffic control services are provided to aircraft by voice radio – aircraft controllers speaking directly to pilots,’ said Dr Clothier said.
‘Our project aimed to develop and demonstrate an autonomous capability that would allow a drone to verbally interact with air traffic controllers.
‘Using the system we’ve developed, an air traffic controller can talk to, and receive responses from, a drone just like they would with any other aircraft.’
Philippe Bernard-Flattot, technical director at Thales Australia, said: ‘This is a significant project that is important for the future of air traffic control systems.
‘It brings the safe and seamless operation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles within civil airspace one step closer, and is an excellent example of close collaboration between different teams.’
The new system – which was presented by researchers in a paper at the Australian International Aerospace Congress held in Melbourne this week – enables a drone to respond to information requests and act on clearances issued by an air traffic controller, using ATVoice, UFA’s voice recognition and response technology.
Flight-testing of a prototype system was completed late last year, demonstrating integration to Thales’ Top Sky Air Traffic Control System. Further studies are now underway to better understand the benefits, and explore the human factor issues associated with the automation of drone to air traffic controller communications.
The drone or unmanned aircraft is able to communicate to an air traffic controller through English. It’s based on UFA’s ATVoice technology, which uses the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standard of phraseology, but the RMIT researchers are looking into more advanced machine learning algorithms for it handle more complex decision making.
“The drone can interpret messages that are issued to it, and decide whether it can actually respond to a clearance issued to it correctly … and decide whether it can safely act on those clearances.
“We’ve had our own staff mimic the role of the air traffic controller and phone up the drone and say ‘I would like you to hold here’ and our drone has responded and executed those clearances as requested.”
At the moment the drone is not highly intelligent, Clothier said. It has fairy static checks and responses and can only carry out basic decision making.
“A pilot would have to make decisions as to the safety of his or her flight, and that may mean ignoring air traffic control advice or asking for corrections or changing requests because there might be sudden changes in the environment and those sorts of thing.