Technology Will Always Lead the Market
It’s natural for regulators to lag behind technology as they have a lot more factors to consider in the interest of greater public good before framing regulations. The best that can be done is for the industry to come alongside regulators and help them to write standards, says Jeremy Bennington, Vice President of PNT Assurance, Spirent.
What is GNSS Foresight?
Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) performance can vary greatly according to the operating environment. If you take a GNSS receiver into an urban area, the performance will be worse than in rural environments where there’s a clear view of the sky. At low altitudes in an urban settlement, there are buildings and terrain features that block satellite signals. This blockage reduces the positioning performance and predictability of the system — a big problem in the aviation industry for a reliable Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flight. It also makes it very difficult to have coordinated, unmanned traffic management, where you allocate routes to each drone to have a reliable position.
To overcome these challenges, we have launched a service called GNSS Foresight. From an aviation perspective, it solves the navigation problem and provides advance knowledge of where and when GNSS is reliable. GNSS Foresight is a cloud-based subscription service — a customer subscribes to a certain area, where they want to have reliable navigation for drones, air taxis, autonomous cars, etc. and in the Cloud we predict every square meter in that particular area.
The other solution that we provide is risk analysis. In aviation, drone companies are doing a lot of testing and operating in rural areas, however, they are not yet ready to fly in complex urban areas so they want to simply know where they can always fly. What we then do is take forecasts over a long period of time and find the best and worst case scenarios, and use that to determine where the higher risk areas are and where there is never any degradation.
Dynamic maps play an important role in a variety of modern/advanced Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) solutions. Can you elaborate on the value of geospatial information in it?
We use geospatial information from one of the world’s largest mapping and satellite imagery providers, and they have over 80 million sq. kilometers of the globe in 3D objects with better than meter-level resolution. This geospatial information that we get about the terrain and buildings gives us a highly-accurate prediction of where satellite signals will be blocked. The other piece is the timeliness of the data. The variable element of GNSS performance comes from the fact that satellites are orbiting at about one degree per minute. They are constantly in motion and the more constellations you use, the more complex it becomes. A multi-constellation receiver is capable of receiving over 100 satellites, all in different orbits. Our solution predicts for every second, accounting for each tiny change in satellite visibility to provide a highly reliable solution.
It’s inevitable that structures will be built and torn down over time, causing changes to the signal environment – accounted for in our solution by the regular provision of updated maps from our supplier. While skylines change, it remains true that the motion and trajectory of the satellites remains the key factor in determining availability.
What are the latest technology trends in the PNT industry?
I think we’re starting a new trend, which is the ability to have geospatial awareness. Other sensors that use more than just GNSS, like vision systems, augment it using visual odometry and feature matching to provide simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM). It is nothing new, but it is certainly getting applied. Signals of opportunity augment GNSS in different ways using Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, Wi-Fi, 4G, 5G, and Ultra-Wideband (UWB) — all great developments that the industry is working on. I think all of those can improve performance, especially in areas where GNSS is degraded or denied because of the environment or bad actors, but they all rely on GNSS fundamentally. Bringing more integrity and reliability to GNSS is a critical component and that is why GNSS Foresight will really change the industry. But the other developments are equally going to be the making of autonomous systems, whether they are on the ground or in air. The combination of these is going to be really interesting to see over the next year within the PNT community.
The FAA has created a regulation committee for BVLOS drone flights called Unmanned Aircraft Systems Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight Operations Aviation Rulemaking Committee (UAS BVLOS ARC). Being a part of the industry, what are your expectations from this committee?
The UAS BVLOS ARC was established earlier this year and will provide its report and recommendations by the end of it. The industry is very interested to see what the framework is going to be from the FAA. I know many people in the industry, who are spending 40 to 50 hours a week, working on different parts of the recommendations, so I expect the quality of the recommendations to be very good and thorough. It won’t just cover navigation but will cover Detect and Avoid (DAA), as well as unmanned traffic management — that’s my expectation.
I am involved with the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) BVLOS Working Group, where we are working in anticipation of rule-making and the ability to provide recommendations and standards for BVLOS navigation for small aircraft. In parallel to the FAA, one of the critical things that we are doing is trying to use as many existing standards and technologies as possible. If we can use existing standards and existing certification processes, then it’s familiar to the industry and the regulator. If the industry needs additional performance, or once you’ve used other technologies such as GNSS, we can add those into the recommendation. I have high expectations that we will see a comprehensive recommendation come out this year.
What are your views on the pace of technology versus the pace of regulation covering the technology?
It’s natural in any industry for regulations to fall behind technology development, because regulators and laws are naturally reactive bodies and processes. With the constant need to innovate and to outperform competitors, technology always has and always will lead regulation. This brings with it challenges, as businesses need to justify full commitment to new technological possibilities while centralized regulation necessarily falls behind. It’s not possible, with all the additional considerations and comprehensive group of stakeholders, for governments and agencies to keep pace. They consider all businesses, all public and private people. So, it is natural that they take their time to ensure that the rules are fair and benefit society. I know that the industry sometimes gets frustrated that regulators take a while, but I think it is prudent for them.
That being said, I do wish things could go faster. We would probably see more BVLOS flights today, had we not had a pandemic. If we can move forward with the regulation, which they are obviously doing with the BVLOS ARC, the next time a crisis happens we will have this technology and we would be able to use it for public good safely. I think it is natural for regulators to lag as they have a very tall order to solve. The best we can do for the industry is to come alongside the regulators and help them by writing standards, like ASTM does. There are different programs with the FAA where we share our data with them to demonstrate what is capable and what is scalable in the society. We can accelerate the change and increase the robustness of the legislation – for the benefit of all – by collaboration in this area.
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