Françoise Derout, president of Air Space Drone, France. Image: ASD

Interview: Françoise Derout of Air Space Drone

Interviews

The Principality of Monaco and Air Space Drone, a startup located in the south of France, announced on June 3 the deployment of FlySafe, an Unmanned aircraft Traffic Management (UTM) system which will allow helicopters, c-drones, and future eVTOL (electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing) air taxis to share Monaco’s airspace. In particular, drones will be able to fly offshore Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) in the local Monégasque and French airspace, monitored by air traffic controllers. Françoise Derout is Co-founder and President of ASD and we met in the south of France on April 11, just before the official announcement of Monaco’s UTM project.

Q: I am in Marseille with Françoise Derout of Air Space Drone. I’m pleased you’ve been able to sit down with me. Let’s cover some topics. You told me you have some big news coming. Before we talk about that, perhaps you could explain to me what Air Space Drone does. What is your position in the market? What are your activities?

Francoise Derout: Air Space Drone is a company founded in 2015. We started with air tracking, so we had a well-defined strategy. We started with tracking only. We have been doing research and development for a number of years because air tracking is not land tracking, there is a real difference. We were incubated by the Ecole des Mines of Saint Etienne which is a school that still supports us by regularly giving us resources, 5 engineering students every year. So we were able to progress quickly and recruit to get an operational solution happening quickly. We created a kind of miniaturized air transponder [EITS: Electronic Identification & Tracking System – Ed.] that we could adapt to drones, since that was the original goal, and we created a platform to retrieve this data. The platform is called FlySafe. So we had a first success, a first proof of concept (POC) that went well, a partnership with Airbus on the Skyways project in Singapore. We are still there, the trials are continuing and it’s working very well. So that’s our positioning. It’s Traffic Management, certainly, but beyond that, it’s Urban Air Mobility, because air traffic management is a part of Urban Air Mobility, an indispensable part. That’s why we started with air traffic — it was without doubt the most complicated aspect of Urban Air Mobility. What will come later will certainly be less of a challenge since we will be able to do vertical development afterwards. We can capitalize on what has been done.

Q: Yes, I often think that Urban Air Mobility in development will rely on what is being done today with drones in airspace: tracking, identification, etc. So tell me, there is a project you have been working on for over a year apparently, which will go into production soon? Tell me about that.

Françoise Derout: It’s a project we first started working on, our first contacts, two years ago. It is for the Principality of Monaco that has expressed the need to regulate its low-altitude air traffic. And that was great because we could offer them a solution that we were actively researching and developing. And this allowed us, and the Principality too, to perform real-life tests, in the Principality. Today, we have developed a whole platform that manages air traffic at low-altitude. We file flight plans, we track the flights, and then obviously we archive the data. All of this is centralized at the Civil Aviation Authority which has made our tool, our platform and our trackers, an essential system for low-altitude air traffic control, and their Urban Air Mobility as well since there is major helicopter traffic. There are many round trips. There are shuttles every ten minutes, takeoffs and landings, in Monaco. There are drones which obviously had to be integrated. There are also security issues that are important to Monaco because there is a high density of population relative to land there. It was really essential to deploy a solution, and the official launch of the platform will take place there on June 3, 2019. And we are very proud!

Q: Congratulations! So, let’s talk for a moment about “dark drones”, unauthorized or rogue drones. Well, of course you have the case of tourists, for example those who flew over the G7 meeting recently, and the drone unit of the gendarmerie was able to determine that it was merely clueless tourists. But we could also have the case of the ill-intentioned. How do you deal with those situations?

Françoise Derout: So, I always come back to Monaco because it’s a really interesting case, because obviously this was also a question for the director of civil aviation, Bruno Lassagne, who had a request to neutralize so-called hostile or non-identified drones. The idea was for Monaco to only allow drones that had a specific device, in this case the ASD EITS tracker, and for all drones that enter the platform’s range but are not identifiable, flying without a flight permit, they have a radical policy. They intervene to ground the drone. That’s also a part of what this platform can bring. It’s security, neutralization by default of drones that are not identified.

Q: Tell me a little more about how your platform works. Each drone is equipped with a device, do you integrate radio frequency scanners or how does it work?

Françoise Derout: The box runs on myriad GNSS and Iridium GPRS technology. We designed this device to work anywhere in the world at any time. If GPS is unavailable for any reason, we can rely on hybrid techniques that allow us to keep a connection and always have these drones present in the platform’s view. So that’s how we can manage them perfectly from beginning to end; even if there is faulty technology, there is another that takes over.

Q: Let’s go back to Skyways in Singapore. Well, it’s very interesting, flying over a body of water like that, in the harbor. It’s not a moving ship, it’s moored, but still, we could very well imagine the cases where the drone connection could go down, the drone will be lost… At the same time, Airbus had said, and the local partner too, how incredibly efficient drones are compared to sending launch boats with small shipments. So could you tell me a bit about the project in Singapore?

Françoise Derout: The Skyways project is a little different from Monaco, because in Monaco there is no predetermined air corridor. The idea was to allow the drones — watch over them, but allow them still relatively free flight based on their flight plans. Skyways is different, we’re using air corridors that are already predetermined and for now we have not gone beyond this stage in the experiment, although in the long run I imagine that the routes are going to be more open in Singapore because it is going very well, there is no reason that it won’t continue to develop. But we don’t have this notion yet of freedom of flight, to be able to leave predefined corridors. So it’s true that our solution is a bit limited, because it can do so much more, but it’s already huge to be able to test it in Singapore, in this complex environment, maritime, terrestrial, aerial, which is very specific and very dense.

Q: More generally, what is your point of view on the development of the U-Space market, UTM? Every person I talk to on the subject says there is only one way it could work: to automate it, computerize it. What is your point of view?

Françoise Derout: Concerning U-Space, I really believe in interoperable platforms. I don’t think there will be a single platform. There will be our platform, there will certainly be the platforms of some of our competitors I imagine. We are nevertheless in legal and cultural specific contexts, which are difficult to overcome for the moment. And I don’t really see anything totally unified before several decades. I think it will be a conglomerate of UTMs that will be aggregated to give a very detailed representation of the ground relative to where each one was developed. But I have trouble projecting a Phase 4 U-Space with something uniform; at the moment it doesn’t seem possible to me. I think that we will have to adapt and slowly discern the specifics of each other, and after, perhaps, go little by little towards international developments and international standards. For the moment, it seems to me that we are not there yet. Already, we have to convince citizens of the usefulness of drones and the services they can offer. All that is part of culture, differing perspectives. To respect that, to make it work, there are all these factors to take into account and I think we must respect that, UTMs that take into account the specificities and all cultures.

Q: What about eVTOLs or flying taxis? OK, it’s still early, we are talking 5 or 7 years from now. But do you have something to say on this topic?

Françoise Derout: So back to Monaco, because it really is the main subject. Bruno Lassagne, the director of civil aviation, in fact has a goal to start autonomous shuttles from the Monaco heliport to Nice airport. That’s part of Urban Air Mobility, to relieve traffic congestion. The horizon is three years from now. And this will be with our platform as well, the FlySafe platform. So we are deeply committed to developing technological bricks for that, in particular, to make these shuttles happen.

Q: Françoise, thank you very much for taking time with me.

Françoise Derout: Thank you, Sean, thank you for coming here. It’s good to see an American in Marseille, it made me very happy to see you. And I think it was a first time, but it will not be the last time!