In June 2021, Canada’s air navigation service provider NAV CANADA publicly launched the ‘NAV Drone’ application as part of its national RPAS Traffic Management (RTM) platform supplied by Unifly.
Exactly one year after the launch, Alan Chapman (RTM Director at NAV CANADA) and Andres Van Swalm (CEO at Unifly) reflect on this collaborative journey and on what the future holds for the Canadian RPAS community.
Andres Van Swalm, CEO of Unifly (left);
Alan Chapman, RTM Director at NAV CANADA (right)
Andres: Congratulations to NAV CANADA on the first anniversary of NAV Drone!
In Unifly’s experience, the public launch of the system is usually an important milestone for an air navigation service provider extending its services from “manned” to “unmanned” traffic management.
What triggered NAV CANADA to decide to deploy an RPAS Traffic Management platform?
Alan: Thank you Andres and congratulations to the Unifly team, too!
For NAV CANADA, the trigger was the new regulatory framework introduced by Transport Canada in June 2019, which transferred the responsibility of managing RPAS in controlled airspace to NAV CANADA.
Our primary focus was to enhance aviation safety overall raising awareness and education amongst users. This includes supporting RPAS pilots to comply with the regulations adopted by Transport Canada and with a process to grant permission to fly in controlled airspace.
We knew we needed a new approach to manage that fast-growing volume of RPAS flights because we had observed a rapid increase in flights even before the new regulations entered into effect.
We needed an approach with a high level of automation. So in early 2019, NAV CANADA evaluated the solutions available on the market to meet these objectives and started the acquisition process for an RPAS Traffic Management platform.
Andres: Which criteria did you prioritize in your evaluation, and what would you recommend to other air navigation service providers who are about to start this process?
Alan: We were looking for a state-of-the-art, scalable, and multilingual platform that meets our technical requirements. But in addition to the technical evaluation, we also looked at three equally important non-technical aspects:
1. Experience: nobody wants to be the first client for such a highly strategic project. We wanted a partner with significant experience in deploying national RTM systems and who is familiar with the needs and processes of air navigation service providers.
2. Long-term vision: we were looking for a partner who could not only deliver today’s needs but who also brings a vision that will allow NAV CANADA to stay at the vanguard in the long run, too.
3. Quality & security: NAV CANADA has set high standards that we expect our technology suppliers to meet, especially in areas like data protection, cybersecurity, and quality management.
My advice to other air navigation service providers looking at deploying an RTM system is to pay attention to non-technical aspects as well, as they are critically important but often overlooked.
When evaluating bidders on all these criteria, Unifly stood out.
Andres: How does NAV Drone fit into NAV CANADA’s corporate strategy?
Alan: The successful deployment of our RTM system is at the cornerstone of our strategy to safely integrate RPAS into the Canadian airspace and was one of our five corporate goals.
Another important dimension is the many disciplines involved in this program. This required an effective collaboration between several departments that, prior to this, had minimal interface. So the effort was coordinated by a newly created RTM team, whose members came from across the organization. In some ways, this new approach to internal collaboration at NAV CANADA was a first of its kind and will serve as a model for other future projects.
Andres: How would you best describe NAV Drone and the benefits that the RTM platform brings to the RPAS community and NAV CANADA?
Alan: NAV Drone is a resilient platform that provides situational awareness and operational planning to RPAS Pilots and Operators. It allows them to understand the airspace they are flying in, and when they need to request permission to access controlled airspace. Pilots and Operators use the portal designed for their use, which provides a suite of services available through both web and mobile applications. Services include user-friendly visualization of airspace restrictions, flight planning and validation against the Canadian regulations, digital permission requests to access NAV CANADA’s controlled airspace, as well as intuitive functionalities to manage their crew, fleet, and operations.
To NAV CANADA the NAV Drone system reduces the workload on our operational units, and therefore reduces distraction from their core duties, which in turn supports overall safety. This is achieved through both the automation of requests and the workflow associated with requests requiring further coordination. The RTM platform also includes a map-based view that displays all RPAS operations – planned and currently in flight – allowing our ATS units to respond when situations, such as priority flights occur in the control zone. The supervisory portal allows immediate access to verified phone numbers for pilots.
Andres: We are now a year after the launch of NAV Drone, and it seems that the project has garnered significant success. In hard numbers and figures, the analytics from the RTM platform provides a trove of relevant data and statistics.
Which indicators has NAV CANADA been closely monitoring, and what have been the results so far?
Alan: Excellent question! Early on, NAV CANADA had defined key performance indicators that we have closely monitored since the system went live.
First, is the number of active users, as a proxy for the adoption of the system.
With more than 20,000 pilots registered in NAV Drone, the adoption rate is slightly above our initial expectations. That includes nearly 3,800 pilots with an Advanced Pilot Certificate, representing about 50% of all Advanced Pilot Certificates delivered by Transport Canada.
Second, is the number of permission requests submitted through NAV Drone.
Here, we saw a 50% year-on-year increase compared to the process in place before NAV Drone. This huge increase is not only related to pilots conducting more flights, it also indicates that applications like NAV Drone really maximize compliance of the pilots with the processes to fly in controlled airspace, which directly contributes to our mission to guarantee airspace safety.
Third, the fraction of those permission requests that meet the criteria for automatic approval by the NAV Drone system, compared to those that do not and trigger a review by our ATS units.
This indicator directly points to the increase in efficiency offered by the Unifly platform, as to how NAV CANADA manages RPAS access to controlled airspace. And we are very happy with the results since about 70% of the requests are automatically approved, corresponding to thousands of hours of manual review saved.
We are also using data analytics to derive trends about where and when RPAS operators are flying. This type of analysis allows us to understand early – while RPAS traffic is still relatively limited – if and where there may be a need to invest to continue to allow RPAS to fly while maintaining the highest level of airspace safety in the future.
Andres: Speaking of the future, as a global RTM technology provider, Unifly observes trends such as the adoption of RTM systems by authorities other than air navigation service providers, the progress in defining performance requirements for BVLOS operations, and solutions deployed by more and more airports and other critical facilities to detect and identify unauthorized RPAS.
Which of these topics is on NAV CANADA’s priority list for the near future?
Alan: All of the above! We see a lot of interest from other key stakeholders, including critical facility operators like airports or seaports, to enable commercial RPAS operators to safely access the airspace above their facilities and to leverage the situational awareness offered by the NAV Drone Supervisor Portal that the NAV CANADA ATS units are already using.
Integrating BVLOS operations into NAV Drone is also key for us, especially as Transport Canada is working to include low-risk BVLOS in the next iteration of the Canadian RPAS regulations.
And yes, together with Transport Canada and the industry, we are conducting trials for the detection of rogue RPAS at nearby airports. When it comes to distinguishing authorized from unauthorized RPAS, the NAV Drone platform perfectly complements the detection systems that a critical facility may want to deploy.
Andres: Sounds like a busy agenda Alan. I would like to thank you for the partnership between NAV CANADA and Unifly over the last year. Let's continue, together, to help the RPAS industry grow while keeping the Canadian airspace safer than ever!
About NAV CANADA
NAV CANADA is a private, not-for-profit company, established in 1996, providing air traffic control, airport advisory services, weather briefings and aeronautical information services for more than 18 million square kilometres of Canadian domestic and international airspace. The Company is internationally recognized for its safety record, and technology innovation. Air traffic management systems developed by NAV CANADA are used by air navigation service providers in countries worldwide.
Unifly is a global leader in Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM). The Unifly UTM platform connects authorities and operators to safely and securely integrate drones into the airspace. By digitizing and automating drone traffic management, Unifly enables aviation authorities to be prepared for the exponential growth in drone traffic.
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