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Australia building air traffic control system for drones ahead of influx of ‘flying taxis’

<span>‘The way we do air traffic control today won’t work for the number of drones we expect to see in our skies,’ Airservices Australia says.</span><span>Photograph: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images</span>
‘The way we do air traffic control today won’t work for the number of drones we expect to see in our skies,’ Airservices Australia says.Photograph: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

Australia is building an air traffic control system for drones as authorities prepare for a surge in uncrewed aircraft flights and flying taxis over the next decade.

Airservices Australia – the federal government agency responsible for managing airspace across the country – has appointed air traffic management company Frequentis Australasia to develop a “digital air traffic management to safely integrate millions of uncrewed aircraft flights into Australia’s busy airspace”.

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Analysis commissioned by Airservices Australia predicts that drone flights in the country will surge to 60m by 2043 including delivery drones, air taxis and other pilotless operations. At present, there are about 1.5m drone flights a year.

“The way we do air traffic control today won’t work for the number of drones we expect to see in our skies,” Airservices Australia’s Luke Gumley said on Monday.

“There will be many aircraft in urban environments with high populations … drone delivery will operate in populous areas.

Gumley, the head of transformation uncrewed services, said the future drone management system would incorporate a significant amount of automation. Current air traffic control systems relied on verbal communication between controllers and pilots.

Authorities were expecting unmanned aircraft to be highly automated, possibly with one pilot on the ground controlling multiple aircraft at once, he said.

“Humans will still be in the loop, but perhaps more on the loop than within the loop.”

Ultimately, the drone management system would have to integrate with the broader control of air traffic in Australia, to ensure drones didn’t interfere with commercial flights and to stop them from crashing into each other, Gumley said.

“Currently, drones generally don’t operate where crewed aircraft do, but in time we know we’ll have to integrate the two, with airspace being finite, and congestion around urban environments,” he said.

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“We will have to have strong coordination … with systems talking to each other.”

Australia would examine US and European Union drone management so local systems were interoperable with international standards, Gumley said.

New rules would focus on commercial operations such as drones and air taxis as opposed to smaller consumer and photography drones, but Gumley predicted that in particularly busy urban areas “we might need recreational [drone] pilots to take some additional steps to fly”.

While an “influx of drones” was expected first, flying taxis would soon become prominent in Australian skies, Airservices Australia’s recent analysis found.

“We see that the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games will be a catalysing event for air taxis,” Gumley said. “We know that from speaking to air taxi manufacturers – they’re hoping to deliver some services at the Brisbane Olympics and we see air taxis operating more at scale by then.”

Airservices Australia believes the first wave of air taxis will have pilots onboard but said it was aware of some companies hoping to launch with uncrewed operations – so the agency was planning a management system that could handle both.

“We’re preparing our technology to cater for both types of air taxis,” Gumley said.

Given the robust nature of aviation safety standards, Gumley said, artificial intelligence would not feature as part of the initial drone airspace management system.

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Martin Rampl, managing director at Frequentis Australasia, said the new partnership with Airservices Australia marked a milestone in supporting the “Australian airspace ecosystem with safe, efficient and compliant integration of drones while fostering innovation and economic growth”.

“We are looking forward to working with Airservices to jointly develop the system, pushing technological innovation in the uncrewed aviation domain, including the ability to integrate new services in the future.”

Jason Harfield, chief executive of Airservices Australia, said: “Drones are the biggest growth area in aviation.

“Our partnership with Frequentis to develop a Fims [flight information management system] will enable us to integrate traditional and new airspace users into increasingly busy airspace.”