We recently sat down with Zehra Akbar, the Chief Strategy Officer at SkyGrid, to speak about how SkyGrid is uniquely positioned to ensure the safety and security of uncrewed autonomous aircraft operations and oversee their safe integration into global airspaces. This article will explore the importance of safety in autonomous aviation and how SkyGrid has been developing a third-party software solution for ground-based functions needed to integrate crewed and uncrewed aircraft into new airspaces. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the organisation, SkyGrid is building a software solution for airspace management designed specifically for drones, air taxis, and other uncrewed aircraft. The platform uses AI and blockchain technologies to create a smarter AerialOS™ system that monitors, predicts and adapts to changes in airspace traffic, environmental conditions and vehicle performance to enable safe, autonomous flight. The system provides airspace awareness, flight operations, and fleet management features, which cater to operators, enterprises, and authorities.

Going from serving over 100k small UAS users to large crewed and uncrewed aircraft

SkyGrid was founded in 2018 and is a joint venture between the Boeing Company and SparkCognition, which is an AI company based in Austin, Texas, known for its work with major institutions in the United States government. The Boeing Company, which has historically been very conservative when it comes to founding joint ventures, decided to partner with SparkCognition to found SkyGrid after seeing the need for critical infrastructure for the autonomous aviation industry. By using the world-class AI solutions developed by SparkCognition and the extensive experience in the aviation industry from The Boeing Company, they were able to put their knowledge together in this new venture to build a system designed for autonomous flight.

The organisation was founded with the intent of safely and securely integrating uncrewed aircraft into global airspaces. Since their inception, the company has primarily worked with small UAS but has recently gained some notable achievements with larger crewed and uncrewed aircraft as well. Zehra told us that SkyGrid began to see the shift from smaller UAS to larger aircraft as a steppingstone and a way to move together as an industry, which is why they developed three key core small UAS products as part of their AerialOS™ solution: Airspace Awareness, Flight Planning, and Fleet Management.

In addition to the AerialOS™ solution they’ve developed, the team has also created an app called SkyGrid Flight Control which is an all-in-one app for operators and enterprises to manage the complete drone operations workflow. The app helps the user to explore airspace, automate flights, and gain insights in real-time. This makes it easier for users to complete various missions faster and with less downtime.

As an FAA-approved UAS Service Supplier of LAANC, SkyGrid also provides authorization to fly in controlled airspace in near-real-time. The app's easy-to-use airspace map includes advanced weather, location, and regulatory insights to make more informed decisions before you fly. Additionally, the drone flight planner minimizes manual workflows with automated mission plans and autonomous flight execution.

Projects with the FAA, NASA, the U.S. Airforce, and Raytheon

Throughout SkyGrid's history, they have had the privilege of collaborating with numerous prominent aviation partners, owing to their affiliation with SparkCognition. This strong connection to their parent company has fostered the joint development of various government services for the United States. Likewise, The Boeing Company has also contributed to SkyGrid’s success through comparable projects for the U.S. Air Force, providing the team with a gateway to initiate collaborations with further well-known government organisations.

In recent months, the SkyGrid team has started to dedicate substantial effort to developing ground-based solutions for the integration of large uncrewed aircraft into global airspaces. The primary emphasis has been on guaranteeing that their work facilitates the safe and secure incorporation of autonomous aviation into global airspaces. This means their team needs to anticipate future requirements for third-party supplemental data services and construct these services with security and privacy considerations in mind.

This endeavour goes beyond a singular product, encompassing an interconnected system across all aspects.

Moving towards a future of autonomous vehicles

In general, the small UAS market has experienced remarkable progress since companies first emerged catering to this market. Zehra told us at the time of SkyGrid's inception, the market was notably fragmented with smaller companies offering services for one or two specific elements required for airborne operations, a common occurrence in early-stage industries. This development posed significant challenges for operators, who were required to source multiple solutions before they could even begin thinking about drone operations.

These services include things like weather monitoring, obtaining the necessary approvals, and checking drone-specific updates, such as the health of the drone. SkyGrid quickly recognised the pressing demand for a comprehensive end-to-end system, leading to the launch of the AerialOS™ solution. The objective of this solution is to establish a seamless user experience for anyone seeking to operate a drone, ensuring that users remain informed and compliant with all current guidelines.

From the outset, the team recognised that this end-to-end solution would need to be a versatile multi-drone system, enabling a single user to manage multiple flights through a scalable platform. For instance, an individual aiming to execute a swarm mission can effortlessly command a fleet of drones within a specific area. The system automatically generates the most efficient routes and autonomously carries out the mission.

At present, SkyGrid aims to advance its role as a third-party service provider of operational functions within the broader radio positioning system (RPS) framework. This represents a significant leap from merely facilitating thousands of small UAS flights while ensuring safe and compliant operations for private users. Upon achieving this service as a third-party service provider, SkyGrid aspires to execute the actual integration of crewed and uncrewed aircraft in intricate airspaces through the experiences made with small UAS.
This entails incorporating elements such as aerial taxis and sizable cargo drones that are making routine flights over cities and critical infrastructure, which naturally increases the risk of these operations and makes approvals harder to achieve. With the introduction of these airborne vehicles into populated airspaces, a dependable software solution for deconflicting populated airspaces is crucial for maintaining flight safety. 

Consequently, SkyGrid is developing supplementary ground-based functions essential for a future where autonomous aerial passenger vehicles seamlessly integrate into our daily lives.

The importance of safety in autonomous aviation

SkyGrid prioritizes safety as a paramount concern, using an internal metric to assess the safety level of operations. This metric gauges the potential impact an operation may have. The significance of this assessment is particularly heightened in the context of urban air mobility, whether crewed or uncrewed, which requires a greater degree of safety assurance considering the presence of passengers.

The objective for autonomous aviation is to meet or even surpass the safety standards established by today's commercial aviation industry. This approach allows the advanced air mobility (AAM) ecosystem to expand collectively while adhering to stringent safety requirements. In terms of scalability, third-party solutions emerge as the natural choice, playing a vital role in overseeing routine operations. Future third-party solutions will also need to collaborate closely with regional regulators, aviation authorities, and stakeholders such as NASA, a leader in autonomous aviation, to ensure the feasibility of operational approvals.

The SkyGrid team highlighted that while the industry frequently discusses certification and approvals, both elements must be pursued concurrently for the AAM ecosystem to grow together in the future. Essentially, an integrated strategy building upon commercial safety assurance levels is necessary for urban air mobility to scale successfully.

Moving forward through regulatory compliance

Like most drone organisations, SkyGrid acknowledges that successful implementation of operations depends on regulatory support from government bodies and Civil Aviation Authorities (CAAs). That’s why they’ve always collaborated closely with the relevant regulators worldwide, sharing their approach and objectives to obtain feedback and foster future processes that adhere to both private users and government regulators, ultimately increasing the impact SkyGrid’s solutions can have.

This includes partnering with NASA and the FAA in the United States, where they are headquartered, on joint projects. Due to the sensitive nature of these projects, Zehra was unable to provide us with further information, but there are likely to be a few press releases on their website to watch for in the upcoming future.

By maintaining close ties with regulators and involving them in decision-making processes, SkyGrid facilitates faster feedback loops and accelerated turnaround times for operational adjustments. Other stakeholders who stand to benefit from these services also collaborate with SkyGrid, ensuring that the system being developed is not only compliant but also caters to the needs of end users.

SkyGrid aims to create a product that serves as a vital piece of infrastructure for an entire industry, which makes each conversation a crucial building block of this goal. This ambition presents the team with numerous challenges as they strive to optimally address diverse needs while simultaneously ensuring exceptional user satisfaction, regulatory compliance, and safety.

Addressing concerns around privacy and security in autonomous aviation

When we asked SkyGrid to speak about cybersecurity for drones, they told us about their joint project with SparkCognition deploying AI-powered cybersecurity directly on drones, protecting them from zero-day attacks during flight. Equipped with SparkCognition’s DeepArmor® cybersecurity product, SkyGrid is the first airspace management system to enable AI-powered drone protection. This approach provides more advanced airspace security than traditional anti-malware reliant on signatures of known threats.

Following demonstrations in which experienced software developers attempted to breach the drone's security system, they were consistently unsuccessful. This has repeatedly demonstrated DeepArmor's capability to defend against various cyberattacks. The DeepArmor product can be deployed directly on drone hardware to function even when network connectivity is impaired or non-existent. The AI protection defends drones from zero-day attacks by leveraging models trained on the DNA of malicious files instead of relying on a signature database.

The SkyGrid team explained that the types of cybersecurity they offer will likely evolve alongside their products. However, the unwavering emphasis on cybersecurity as one of their top priorities remains constant.

How SkyGrid is different from other airspace management systems

A key distinction between SkyGrid and other airspace management systems lies in their close collaboration with the Boeing Company, which has over a century of aviation experience. This experience has led to SkyGrid adopting the same rigour and safety assurance standards that the Boeing Company employs for commercial safety across all their products, particularly as they engage with unmanned aircraft. This unified approach guarantees that current commercial operation safety levels are preserved for urban air mobility, capitalising on Boeing's expertise in every facet of their product development and strategy.

Besides their partnership with Boeing, SkyGrid also profits from their other parent company SparkCognition, which is focusing on AI and cybersecurity. SkyGrid fuses Boeing's commercial-grade safety assurance level with state-of-the-art cybersecurity solutions from SparkCognition to achieve a unique offering, like the example of the DeepArmor product mentioned above. 

By using the strengths of both parent companies, SkyGrid guarantees a high level of safety assurance across their products and throughout the entire organisation. This blend of Boeing's aviation experience and SparkCognition's AI technology is the main distinguishing feature that SkyGrid has compared to other airspace management systems in the industry.

Leading the way in developing innovative solutions for autonomous aircraft operations

SkyGrid aspires to become the premier provider of the ground-based functions required to integrate uncrewed aircraft in the global airspace. They have already developed several innovative solutions for small UAS, such as one-to-many drone management, when no other industry players were pursuing it. Zehra also told us that SkyGrid participated in Autonomous Warrior 2022 (AW22) in Australia. AW22 brought over 300 personnel from 40 organizations across three countries–Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States–to test leading-edge technologies designed to confront emerging maritime security challenges. In this exercise, SkyGrid showcased their User Interface (UI) for data integration points that SparkCognition Government Systems (SGS) provides to showcase their artificial intelligence capabilities on a global scale with the Royal Australian Navy and the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the 2-week-long international exercise Autonomous Warrior 2022.

As SkyGrid progresses toward their vision of offering the ground-based functions required to integrate uncrewed aircraft in the global airspace, they dedicate both time and effort to identifying safety requirements and standards to realise these goals. Their focus lies in developing inventive solutions for uncrewed aircraft while upholding the necessary operational safety and assurance levels for commercial aviation. 

SkyGrid's unique standing, as a joint venture of two giants in their respective industries and a start-up, enables them to merge the best of both worlds. Their team comprises innovative thinkers from the start-up sphere and seasoned aviation experts. This blend allows SkyGrid to push innovation boundaries while ensuring full compliance with current safety and security standards. Moving forward, Zehra explained that SkyGrid is devoted to addressing the aviation industry's critical challenges and shaping the future of flight with their solutions.

The challenge of harmonisation and how it prevents progress 

The main challenge faced by the industry currently is the necessity for harmonisation and consensus among key participants, as Zehra explained to us. Achieving international agreement on a globalised, harmonised approach for an air transportation system that is interoperable between the US and EU would be extremely advantageous for all players involved in both the private and public sectors. This period signifies a transformational shift, and establishing standards in collaboration with the EU, EASA, US and FAA would also lessen the burden on industry providers.

Another challenge involves the broad spectrum of requirements and plans among vehicle OEMs and operators. While SkyGrid aims to develop a solution compatible with multiple vehicle providers, they also advocate for greater standardisation in requirements and operational plans. Despite the existence of vehicle standards, there has been insufficient emphasis on the roles and requirements necessary for advancing uncrewed aircraft in the industry.

The final challenge is persuading industry stakeholders to view this as a long-term issue rather than merely focusing on the next flight. Many currently concentrate on short-term solutions without contemplating the implications of integrating multiple uncrewed aircraft into global airspace. SkyGrid is committed to envisioning the next significant phase and informing the industry, urging them to consider the future state and requisite safety levels. This challenge entails getting operators and vehicle companies to think beyond the next major flight and contemplate future requirements.

We would like to thank Zehra Akbar and the SkyGrid team for their participation in this article!

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