“To overcome public concerns and win overall acceptance, we need to educate. This requires demonstrating the benefits of using drones, and not just as a way of delivering commercial goods faster. “
– Richard Parker
Learn more on: https://www.altitudeangel.com/
Richard Parker, Founder and CEO at Altitude Angel
Tell us something about your current position and professional background.
The inspiration to start Altitude Angel came when I was working at Microsoft as a senior technical consultant, a role I very much enjoyed. Although my day job had nothing to do with aviation or automated vehicles, outside of work I was very much into robotics, in particular the field of aerial robotics. So, I bought all the necessary hardware and in my own time I began to build ‘drones’ as a hobby.
I soon realised whilst a lot of people wanted to fly them [drones], no one had come up with the technology to safely orchestrate and integrate them in airspace. So, I worked up a prototype platform which I showed to a friend of mine at Microsoft. Then out of the blue, I received a call from that friend’s brother, who had just sold a technology business. I went through my idea with him – which he thought was great – and he said he would like to invest in me as a start-up. I gave myself the evening to think about it and the next day, first thing, I phoned to say ‘yes’. At the time it felt like a massive leap of faith, but I couldn’t have lived with the knowledge I had a shot at something but didn’t take it. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and although I loved my role at Microsoft, most people who join Microsoft love a challenge and problem solving, this was something I had to do. So Altitude Angel was born…
What is your perspective on UTM Market in the next years?
The UTM market is developing. At present, some industries haven’t yet understood the true potential of drones whilst others are just on the cusp of beginning to understand and realise the benefits drones will bring to businesses and why a UTM, like ours, is needed.
For Altitude Angel, from a technology point of view, UTM is effectively about the integration of an increasing number of automated aerial vehicles and an increase in the use of automation technologies to cope with that integration at scale: of course, then there’s everything in between, but that’s a good understanding of the big picture.
In this emerging market, participants effectively divide into two groups: those who think aerial traffic should ‘simply’ be organised peer-to-peer, and those who think a degree of prior agreement and arrangement with some form of centralised entity or ‘coordinator’ would make sense first. We fall somewhere in the middle, recognising that ‘plan to avoid’ has been the basis of manned aviation – and for good reason – and there’s no reason why that should not continue, while “sense and avoid” technologies will need to be integrated, but crucially, supported with centralised navigation guidance so movements through the airspace are at all times pre-planned and sequenced for minimum disruption, even if the ‘pre-planning’ happens just seconds prior to a disruptive event. We believe our role as a UTM technology supplier is to create the best technical solutions and help our customers to deploy them according to their precise requirements, particular since the consensus on what a ‘UTM’ company is and will need to be is still nascent.
What makes your solution different from others and why do you think it will be a success?
As a business, we stand head and shoulders above the competition. The accuracy, quality and reliability of our data which powers our market-leading platform is second to none. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
We’re also leading the industry in new product and service development. We were the first UTM company to introduce strategic and tactical deconfliction, one of the key pillars in providing a safe and successful UTM platform, as an open and accessible API. We also work tirelessly to ensure our partners, whether that’s ANSPs, infrastructure companies, or SMEs, stay ahead of the curve when it comes to innovating the service they provide to their customers.
As a company I think we’re fairly unique: it’s not our role to tell people how to use our technologies, but rather to create the technologies which solve for the current – and future – blockers, and to support those who use our technologies (whether an ANSP, a drone manufacturer, drone pilot or software company) achieve their aspirations. Of course a critical element of what we do is ensuring compatibility between all sectors and verticals, and all individual deployments can be ‘connected’ together when requested, easing the transition to a fully connected sky.
We’re also centred around safety through technical innovation: being a great UTM company has to be about more than just having ‘great technology’: for example, global initiatives such as our own simple, drone-focused “Just Culture” initiative demonstrate our commitment to helping people to learn from the drone community. We understand for the industry to succeed and thrive, we need to keep learning, not just from our successes, but from failures as well. By leading on such initiatives, we can all benefit. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” as my grandfather used to say.
As a manufacturer of UTM software, how important are global standards for you to be able to serve several markets?
Obviously aviation is a heavily regulated industry, and rightly so. Safety cannot be compromised. With the emerging drone market, those standards and regulations are being worked out as the industry establishes itself.
I forget exactly who it was, but some very smart person once quipped that the ‘great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from’. With the bulk of my background in Enterprise technology, I can truly state this is true: and the problem here, in this emerging sector, is there are so many standards-settings bodies, companies and individuals, all fighting each other to have a stake in setting some standard. And of course, not all standards have to do with technology: those which are to do with operations and procedure management are moving first, and it’s good to see those developments.
A concerning trend, however, is that in the standard-setting process already we are seeing competing proposals emerge, meanwhile, every company operating in this space is busy solving these problems – in the real world – and aren’t always able to be present in the standards-settings committees, which are usually staffed by people who are career standard-setters, rather than those will be using them.
So, there’s a place for standards, sure – but any great technology company builds its technologies according to best industry practices and procedures, and that means if any small part of a UTM system can then benefit from an international-agreed standard, or one subsequently becomes available, the UTM company can easily conform to it.
Perhaps more importantly in the interim though are rules governing the procedures – regulations – for how drone traffic should be integrated at scale, with the existing civil and general aviation traffic procedures. What should happen if a drone meets another drone? How should that conflict be resolved? Would a drone carrying human organs for transplant have a higher priority in a conflict resolution scenario over a manned aircraft carrying mail? What about a police drone?
For a company that is miles ahead in terms of building the technologies that are capable of solving these problems, in accordance with local laws and regulations, it’s important that those local laws and regulations are specified in a way that is compatible with safety, and the needs of industry: and I think it is absolutely possible to do both, well.
What do you think will be your biggest challenge in the drone space regarding UTM?
At present, the use of drones in built-up urban areas is not widely embraced by the general public. Some people have the perception, justified or otherwise, that drones are noisy and disruptive, while others worry every drone has a camera which is ‘spying’ on them in their own back garden. However, a little time spent with even the most conservative individuals and suddenly they can see the potential in the technology; they just want their concerns mitigated. We call this ‘responsible implementation’, and it’s something that’s core to what we do.
Such concerns are appropriate for new technologies and it’s the job of regulators to help create new legislation and powers which enable towns and cities to choose where and how they embrace these technologies. Without a centralised system to manage these local rules, however, it becomes hard to imagine how this type of community-managed (or ‘delegated’) scenario could exist.
To overcome public concerns and win overall acceptance, we need to educate. This requires demonstrating the benefits of using drones, and not just as a way of delivering commercial goods faster. Securing widespread acceptance will depend on being able to demonstrate non-commercial use cases. Imagine the cost reduction for the national health service (NHS) if it is able to save lives by delivering much-needed blood or life-saving medicines via drones, flying quickly above densely congested streets. We’re beginning to see the ‘good news stories’ on the news far more frequently.
Of course, some people will try and use the technology to cause disruption. But now we, as an industry, are far more prepared. Airports are deploying technology to combat ‘rogue’ drones in an attempt to prevent ‘another Gatwick incident’. Heathrow and five other airports operated by NATS are now using Altitude Angel’s GuardianUTM platform to give authorised users access to airspace in and around airports, which will aid the authorities by quickly identifying a drone on or near the airfield as friend or foe. It’s also the first step in helping to prove the use of automation to aid air traffic controllers in safely integrating drones into their workflow, just as they already do with new aircraft.
As we hear more of these real-life examples of drones being used in a positive and practical day-to-day way and the instances of disruption are quickly resolved, then the public will understand and appreciate the positive impact drones will have on all our lives and then we will really be able to witness the power of drones to transform lives and revolutionise business.
And although it is a controversial view, I personally feel it is inevitable that we will flip the airspace regulation around and say that drones are the boss under 300m/1000ft. If manned aircraft want to operate there, they will need to play by our rules and participate in the UTM, otherwise stay above that height other than at airports. Until now we’re only allowed to operate drones where it can be demonstrated that they pose no risk to anyone in the airspace, which includes private pilots flying around in 70 year old aircraft without any modern avionics on board, sometimes not even a radio. That makes the task very difficult. But soon the economic benefits of drones will eclipse the needs of light aircraft, and hopefully things like police and emergency services helicopters that need to operate at low-level will have the tech on board to communicate with the UTM to establish realtime clearings for them as they come and go at this height.
Parts of the world who aren’t so risk averse will likely leapfrog the west on this though. They know the lives saved by a national program to deliver vaccines, medicine and organ transfer in the absence of transport infrastructure will outweigh the extremely small risk of a collision, and negate the right for private pilots to fly around wherever they like at low level.
I think we’re also likely to see the drone regulations split off as separate departments from the traditional aviation regulators. To me it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the same group of people to be regulating A380s packed with hundreds of people on board, and something weighing 500g that fits in the palm of your hand. One end of that spectrum is focused on keeping billions of air transport passengers safe, and so is understandably conservative and slow-acting, while the other end of the spectrum needs very dynamic minds to keep up with the technology. It’s asking a bit much that the same group of people can do both, and so of course the outcome is the one we have: the newer drone industry is being slowed to the pace of the traditional aviation regulators. They’re doing the best they can, but it’s not really the right framework for success.