FAA-Backed Project Trials Cybersecurity System for Uncrewed Traffic Management

Just as air traffic control is essential for commercial and general aviation, so too will uncrewed traffic management be for drones.

Unifly drone UTM

Unifly’s uncrewed traffic management system could provide an additional layer of safety for drone operations. [Courtesy: Unifly]

America’s air traffic control system is experiencing a prolonged shortage, one that may be addressed by the pending House FAA reauthorization bill. But that legislation may also throw a new air traffic-related curveball at regulators.

The House bill includes several provisions intended to prop up the growing drone, or uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS), industry by pushing for greater permissions for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights. The problem, however, is that if eyes aren’t on the drones, something else will need to monitor them.

Enter uncrewed traffic management (UTM)—essentially, an air traffic control system for UAS. The highly automated, software-based technology is still under development and vulnerable to cyberattacks. But that’s where a company such as Unifly comes in.

The Belgium-based firm this month conducted FAA-approved trials of its Unified UTM Cybersecurity Model: a project that aims to create industrywide requirements and a unified certification pathway for similar systems. Partnering with engineering consultancy Rhea Group and the FAA’s New York UAS Test Site (NYUASTS), Unifly conducted more than 60 actual flights to test out its prototype.

“As drone use continues to rise, it's vital to develop specific cybersecurity measures for UTM to ensure airspace safety and security,” said Andres Van Swalm, CEO of Unifly. “We take pride in our key role in this initiative.”

The FAA-backed project has implications not just for the broader UTM industry but also drone operators, regulators, the general public, and pilots. 

Just as ATC is essential for commercial and general aviation, so too will UTM be for drones. While early operations are limited and BVLOS flights are rare, the FAA is working to expand them to populated areas and complex airspace—including around airports.

For the safety of those on the ground and other aircraft in the sky, operators will need to know where their drones are at all times: hence the implementation of provisions such as the FAA’s remote ID rule. If they don’t, the buzzing aircraft can force entire airports to shut down. That’s exactly what happened, for example, at London Heathrow Airport (EGLL)—twice.

Unifly has worked in the UTM space for years. Its customers include air navigation service providers (ANSPs) in eight different countries, including Canada’s Nav Canada and organizations in Spain, Germany, and Belgium. In August, Tokyo-based Terra Drone acquired a majority stake in the company.

According to Unifly, no comprehensive approach to system requirements—much less a unified certification program—exists for UTM cybersecurity, and current solutions only partially address the problem. So when the FAA made a call for proposals for research and development of emerging tech, the firm jumped at the opportunity.

Unifly interviewed representatives from the FAA Air Traffic Organization (ATO), NASA, Nav Canada, American operator DroneUp, and national security analysis nonprofit CNA. After presenting them with the UTM cybersecurity concept, the company recorded feedback and refined the model’s system requirements and security controls.

The updated prototype underwent a series of demonstrations with dozens of real flights at the NYUASTS. The drones relied on tracking facilities and Unifly’s Broadcast Location and Identification device (BLIP). Flights covered three key scenarios: operations in optimal conditions, under simulated attacks, and with the implementation of countermeasures against those attacks.

After research, testing, and data gathering, Unifly delivered several reports highlighting its findings and UTM cybersecurity best practices. The firm said these will serve as a baseline for the development of cybersecurity frameworks down the line.

Like this story? We think you'll also like the Future of FLYING newsletter sent every Thursday afternoon. Sign up now.

Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter