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An exclusive interview on the future of UK Airspace with NATS

During this year's Amsterdam Drone Week, our Co-founder and CEO, Eszter Kovacs had the opportunity to reconnect with Mark Watson, a pioneer in airspace digitalisation and the Head of UTM Service Integration at NATS. Their discussion focused on the evolution of UK airspace management and the exciting new initiatives underway.

Introduction to Mark Watson and NATS

NATS holds a pivotal position in managing the United Kingdom’s airspace, besides the CAAa and DfT’s leading role, especially significant as the realm of unmanned aircraft continues to expand. Mark Watson, as the Head of UTM Service Integration, spearheads efforts to weave drones and advanced air mobility (AAM) into the fabric of the national airspace system. His role is critical in shaping how these technologies integrate seamlessly and safely with traditional manned aviation.

NATS, the UK’s principal air traffic control service provider, is integral to the safety and efficiency of air travel across the country and beyond. In a typical year before the pandemic, NATS was responsible for overseeing more than 2.5 million flights and ensuring the safe travel of approximately 250 million passengers over UK airspace and the North Atlantic. This means that if you've ever flown in or out of the UK, it's almost certain that NATS played a part in your journey.

Beyond its domestic operations, NATS extends its expertise internationally, offering air traffic solutions to various global clients including airports, airlines, other air traffic service providers, and governments. With a presence across parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, NATS not only contributes to the UK's air traffic management but also impacts global aviation standards and practices.

NATS leads as a Climate Pioneer in European Aviation

On April 26, 2024, NATS distinguished itself as a leader in environmental stewardship by topping the Financial Times Climate Leaders list, achieving the highest score (88.8) among two thousand evaluated companies across Europe. This recognition marks the fourth consecutive year NATS has been named in this prestigious list, with this year being its highest ranking to date.

The Financial Times, in collaboration with Statista, annually identifies European companies that have made significant strides in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions intensity. This year's survey highlighted 600 businesses that excelled in lowering their 'core' Scope 1 and 2 emissions, which encompass direct emissions from owned or controlled sources and indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity consumed by the company.

NATS stood out not only for its emission reduction but also for its comprehensive sustainability strategies. The company has been proactive in setting robust science-based targets, committing to net zero, and maintaining transparent disclosure of its indirect Scope 3 value chain emissions.

Key initiatives that have propelled NATS to the forefront of the climate leadership include:

  • Renewable Energy Commitments: NATS has pledged to procure or self-generate 100% renewable electricity by 2030. As of now, the company already secures 99% of its electricity from renewable sources and has been purchasing green gas since 2017.
  • Recognition by the Science Based Targets Initiative: NATS has been awarded “Business Ambition” status, the highest accolade from the Science Based Targets initiative, for its aggressive climate targets that aim to significantly curtail the most severe impacts of climate change.
  • Global Leadership in Climate Transparency: NATS is recognized among the top 2% of global companies for its leadership in corporate transparency and performance on climate change, earning an “A list” rating from the environmental evaluation firm CDP.

Dave Curtis, Safety and Sustainability Director at NATS, expressed pride in the recognition, noting that it reflects the persistent efforts across the organisation to mitigate environmental impact. He emphasised that while the accolades are affirming, the journey towards environmental sustainability is ongoing. NATS is determined to achieve its ambitious targets of becoming net zero carbon by 2035 and carbon negative by 2040, continuing to integrate sustainability into its core decision-making processes.

This prestigious ranking on the Financial Times Climate Leaders list not only underscores NATS’ dedication to environmental excellence but also sets a benchmark in the aviation industry, proving that substantial environmental progress is achievable with committed effort and innovative practices.

Transformative developments in UK Airspace Management

The landscape of UK airspace management has undergone transformational changes, especially in the two years since Mark Watson and Eszter Kovacs last discussed the sector’s evolution. A pivotal element in these advancements is the "Future of Flight" program, which mirrors the ambitions of Europe's SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) initiative but with distinctively British characteristics. This program has been instrumental in propelling forward-thinking research and the early stages of service implementation, benefiting both unmanned and manned aviation sectors.

The Future of Flight program

The Future of Flight program is designed to be a comprehensive strategy aiming to position the UK at the forefront of aviation technology globally. It focuses on integrating innovative technologies such as drones, eVTOL aircraft, and other forms of advanced air mobility into the existing airspace system. This initiative not only anticipates the technological evolution but also addresses the regulatory, environmental, and economic aspects necessary for a sustainable future in aviation.

Key areas of focus and development

1. Integration of UAS: One of the program’s primary focuses has been on safely integrating drones into UK airspace. This involves developing and implementing UTM systems that can coexist with traditional ATM systems. This integration is crucial for the future scalability of drone operations, particularly for commercial and public service applications.

2. Advancing eVTOL Capabilities: The program also supports the development and operational testing of eVTOL technologies. These aircraft promise a new era of UAM, potentially transforming city transportation systems by reducing road traffic and cutting down on pollution. The initiative outlines the infrastructure, such as vertiports and charging stations, and navigational aids needed to support these vehicles.

3. Research and Collaborative Projects: Through partnerships with universities, tech startups, and established aerospace firms, the Future of Flight program fosters a collaborative environment where innovative ideas can be tested and refined. These projects cover a broad spectrum of interests, from improving propulsion technologies to developing noise reduction techniques to ensure that the new aircraft are not only effective but also community-friendly.

4. Policy and Regulatory Frameworks: Recognizing the fast pace of technological advancement, the program also focuses on developing adaptive regulatory frameworks that can support rapid innovation while maintaining high safety standards. This involves close cooperation with the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), who is driving the process and other international aviation bodies to align standards and practices globally.

Impact and Future Prospects

The impact of the Future of Flight program extends beyond technological advancements; it is set to revolutionise the economic landscape of the aviation industry by creating new jobs and stimulating economic growth. The program also places a strong emphasis on environmental sustainability, aiming to reduce the carbon footprint of aviation through cleaner technologies.

As the UK continues to navigate these developments, the Future of Flight program serves as both a roadmap and a beacon for other nations, illustrating the potential benefits of embracing and regulating new aviation technologies thoughtfully and proactively. With these initiatives, the UK is not just modernising its airspace but also setting the stage for a more connected and sustainable future in global aviation.

The Future of Flight Action Plan

In March, the UK's Department for Transport, in collaboration with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), unveiled the ambitious Future of Flight Action Plan. This comprehensive roadmap delineates the UK's strategic initiatives aimed at revolutionising its airspace management to accommodate the next generation of aviation technology. The plan is publicly accessible through the CAA website, offering transparency and encouraging public and industry engagement.

Objectives of the Action Plan

1. Regularisation of BVLOS Operations: One of the major goals of the Future of Flight Action Plan is to regularise BVLOS drone operations by 2027. BVLOS operations are crucial for the scalability of drone use in commercial deliveries, environmental monitoring, and other industrial applications where operations beyond the operator's direct sight are necessary. Regularising these operations involves developing robust safety and regulatory frameworks that ensure these flights are conducted safely, integrating seamlessly with manned aircraft and other airspace users.

2. Introduction of AAM: The plan sets an ambitious target to commence AAM flights as early as 2025. AAM encompasses a range of new aerospace technologies, including eVTOLs, which are expected to transform urban mobility by providing quicker and potentially more environmentally friendly transportation options. To achieve this, the action plan details the necessary steps for infrastructure development, such as vertiports and air traffic management adaptations, which are essential for the integration and safe operation of AAM within urban environments.

The partners of the Future of Flight program

Airspace Modernization Strategy

Mark highlighted the recent updates to the UK CAA's airspace modernization strategy, which now includes comprehensive objectives for integrating unmanned aircraft, from drones to air taxis. This strategy provides a clear framework for industry stakeholders to align their operational goals with national objectives.

This initiative is part of a broader effort to prepare the UK's airspace for the future demands of both commercial and private air transport.

Expanded Scope and Vision

Holistic approach to Airspace use: The modernized strategy takes a holistic view of airspace, considering the needs of traditional aviation, commercial drones, and emerging technologies in air mobility. This approach ensures that the evolving demands of different airspace users are balanced, promoting efficient and safe use of airspace.

Technological adoption and adaptation: A core component of the strategy is the adoption of new technologies that facilitate communication and management of a more complex airspace. This includes the deployment of digital control tower technology, automated air traffic management systems, and real-time data exchange systems that can handle dynamic airspace requirements.

Safety and Regulatory frameworks: Safety remains a paramount concern in the updated strategy. The CAA is committed to developing and enforcing robust safety standards that cover the full spectrum of airspace use, from low-altitude drone operations to high-altitude commercial flights. This includes specific regulations tailored to the operational characteristics of unmanned aircraft and their unique challenges in navigating urban and rural environments.

Infrastructure development: Recognizing the need for new infrastructure to support expanded air traffic, the strategy outlines significant investments in ground-based and satellite communication systems. These systems are essential for the safe coordination of manned and unmanned flights, particularly in congested areas.

Stakeholder engagement and policy development: The strategy emphasises the importance of ongoing engagement with industry stakeholders, local governments, and the public to ensure that the modernization efforts reflect a wide range of interests and concerns. This involves regular consultations, workshops, and collaborative projects that help shape policy development and implementation.

The OpenAir Initiative

One of the most groundbreaking announcements from NATS was the OpenAir initiative, aimed at integrating UTM solutions into the UK's existing air traffic management infrastructure. This initiative seeks to lower barriers for new entrants by utilising existing procedures and technologies, thus accelerating the commercial deployment of UAM solutions.

Key Features of OpenAir

Enhanced interoperability: OpenAir focuses on ensuring that new UTM technologies are fully compatible with existing ATM systems. This interoperability is crucial for maintaining seamless and safe operations across diverse types of aerial vehicles.

Advanced technologies: The initiative leverages advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence to optimise airspace management. These technologies aid in automating traffic planning and real-time decision-making, crucial for handling the complexities of integrated airspace.

Streamlined entry processes: OpenAir simplifies certification and operational processes for new entrants, lowering the barriers to entry and accelerating the commercial deployment of new aviation technologies.

Through these strategic measures, OpenAir is set to transform the UK's airspace management, promoting innovation and safety in equal measure.

Collaboration and Partnerships

NATS has been actively collaborating with industry partners like Vertical Aerospace to trial eVTOL operations in urban areas, potentially launching flights in London by 2025. Moreover, partnerships with UTM providers like Altitude Angel underscore NATS' commitment to merging regulatory frameworks with commercial technologies to foster a robust U-space ecosystem.

Economic and Social Implications

Mark and Eszter emphasised the necessity of sustainable business models in transforming airspace management for advanced air mobility (AAM). Their discussion underlined that beyond the technological advancements, the success of AAM hinges on robust, economically viable models that support long-term growth and integration into existing infrastructures.

Streamlined regulatory processes are essential for fostering innovation and investment in the AAM sector. Simplifying these processes can reduce barriers to entry, accelerating the commercialization of new technologies and ensuring that advancements reach the market more rapidly.

Critical to the deployment of AAM technologies is the development of supportive infrastructure, such as vertiports and integrated traffic management systems. Investments in these areas are vital for the practical implementation of AAM, ensuring that operations are safe and efficient.

By facilitating regulatory approvals and supporting infrastructure development, the UK aims to leverage the significant economic benefits that AAM can bring. This includes creating new jobs, enhancing transport connectivity, and promoting technological leadership on a global scale. Additionally, AAM promises considerable societal benefits, such as reduced urban congestion and lower transportation emissions, contributing to environmental sustainability and improved quality of life.

These strategic focuses highlight the UK's commitment to establishing a sustainable and beneficial framework for the evolution of airspace management, aligning technological progress with broader economic and societal goals.

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