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RMIT team demonstrates talking drone aircraft that interacts with air traffic controllers

27 February 2015

Researchers at RMIT University in Australia have developed a talking drone that can interact with air traffic controllers like a human pilot. The development, they say, is a critical step towards the full integration of unmanned aircraft systems into civil airspace.

The project, part of a larger research initiative that aims to address safety and efficiency issues related to drones and air traffic management, is the result of a partnership between RMIT, Thales Australia and the company’s Centre for Advanced Studies in Air Traffic Management (CASIA), and UFA Inc.

The new system, presented by researchers in a paper at the Australian International Aerospace Congress 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.

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. 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.

—Dr. Reece Clothier

Drones are the fastest growing sector of the aviation industry, with worldwide sales expected to top $US6 billion in 2015. The RMIT UAS Research Team addresses the safety, regulatory, social and technical challenges facing the emerging industry.

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The next step would be to replace the current human air trafic controlers with improved computerized trafic control, more direct routes and approaches togheter with improved collision avoidance system to reduce fying time, fuel consumption and accidents.

Oh yeah, that's what I want when flying in controlled airspace. To talk to the FAA equivalent of Siri, with my life and those of my passengers on the line.

Drone: Hello, air traffic control? I'd like to land, please.
ATC Drone: I'm sorry. I can't allow that, Dave.
Drone: Please respond, who's Dave?
ATC Drone: Daisy, daisy, give me your answer due....

With airborne collision avoidance and computer assisted ground control, controlerless ATC is already half done.

The other 50% could be introduced with the next aircraft and next generation ATC automation system.

Voice communication may have to be replaced with much higher speed digital communication between ground and aircraft. Humans may not be involved on a regular basis.

Harvey, I hate to rain on your parade, but the FAA has not had a great track record for software development project management.

http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/stories/1993-04-25/flying-in-place-the-faas-air-control-fiasco

HD> Voice communication may have to be replaced with much higher speed digital communication between ground and aircraft.

Because when you fly, you prefer to read a text message from ATC? No matter that it's illegal if you do it while driving, should work just fine while flying.

e-c-i-c. I worked in that specific field all my life and it is very doable. As early as 1986, we tested fully automated round trip flights, including shortest enroute, direct approach, take off, smoothest landing, taxing and parking.

Of course, pilots and controlers did not like it but those were perfect (no hand) flights.

Secondly, trafic load or density could be doubled in many places. Human errors would be eliminated.

I would be interested if you had any more specifics, Harvey. I'm no foe at all of technology in the cockpit, but I'm not very impressed with hand waving.

It's one thing to move ailerons, elevator and rudder to maintain course. It's a whole other level of complexity to respond to sometimes ambiguous or incorrect communications.

What kind of "digital communications" are you suggesting would be practical for single pilot operation in he terminal area?

Advanced high speed digital, machine to machine, communication is already done with Blue Tooth, WIFI, Internet, robots etc. It is regularly improving.

Pilotless aircraft can send (to the ground control computer and other flights) all info about the aircraft (present, past and future) and what is seen or perceived around it.

The ground control computer will analyse the info received from all aircraft and drones flying in a given sector and will generate warnings and/or commands to specific aircraft or drone on an as required basis. The new European GPS data is more accurate and will allow much higher traffic density, direct flights and approaches.

Of course, both airborne and ground units are fully redondant and continuously self tested. An aircraft down on one (only) system would be given priority and more space.

All the technology required is here now, but resistance to change will not let it happen for decades.

I believe it is less resistance to change than the cold harsh realities of system requirements and engineering difficulties.

When you mention things like Bluetooth, Wifi and "Internet" in the context of ground to air aviation communication, it's pretty hard to take you seriously Harvey.

There is a digital protocol for traffic collision avoidance, but you didn't mention it.

What I was inquiring about was what you were suggesting as an alternative to voice for ATC to pilot communications? Text messages?

Two or more flying objects, in a given sector, equipped with auto-pilots and accurate actual/future position data can share information using high speed digital links, fly safely and avoid collision without interference from ground ATC.

Currently, ATC staff verbally relay ATC system computer data and warnings (with dangerous delays and interpretations) to pilots, where more delays and interpretation errors occur.

Consequently, we have a few thousand near misses/year and a few hundred accidents/year.

As for ground vehicles, 80% to 85% of air fatalities are caused by controllers/pilots human errors.

IMHO, GPS-enabled highway-in-the-sky system and moving map display can allow for air traffic avoidance without communication with ATC.
Each aircraft would simply broadcast its GPS coordinate and what airway it is following, in open radio channels, in order to allow its location to be plotted into a moving map, so that all air traffics within a given altitude (flight level)can be seen in a moving map display. Given that info, each aircraft would adjust its flight speeds while following each airway in order to avoid collision. Airways are non-intersecting to avoid collision.

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