Altitude Angel launches an API for safer drone flights

Altitude Angel, a U.K. startup that provides safety, data and traffic management systems for drones, is launching a de-confliction service for drone flights — available via its developer API platform.

“The dynamic system will continuously monitor the airspace around an aircraft for the ‘unexpected’ such as other aerial vehicles or changes to airspace (such as a Temporary Flight Restriction/Dynamic Geofence around a police incident),” it writes of the new service.

“After identifying a potential conflict, CRS will make the necessary routing adjustments, allowing the drone to maintain an appropriate separation standard between other airspace users or fly around restricted airspace so it can continue safely (and efficiently) to its destination.”

The global Conflict Resolution Service (CRS) has two components: Strategic de-confliction, which will launch first, on July 23, letting drone operators submit flight plans to the startup to determine whether there are any conflicts with other previously submitted flight plans, or against ground and airspace geofenced areas available in Altitude Angel’s worldwide data feeds.

If a conflict is identified Altitude Angel says its CRS will propose alterations to the take-off time and/or route to “eliminate the conflict” — suggesting, as it puts it “minimally invasive changes to permit the mission to continue unobstructed.”

The service also supports “private” modes for fleet operators who only want to check for conflicts against their own drones or customers.

The second component — which will launch in late September — is called Tactical de-confliction. This will provide information to drone pilots or the drone itself to ensure separation is maintained during the in-flight phase.

“We’re bringing in commercially available data feeds of every piece of manned air traffic available today. So that’s every commercial flight, that’s in some instances police helicopters, medical choppers etc., etc. So the tactical service will then supplement that drone on drone collision data [from the Statistical CRS] with drone on manned aviation,” says CEO Richard Parker.

The U.K. startup, which also provides data to power geofencing services for drones (drone maker DJI is among its customers) is positioning its software and services business as an enabling layer for unmanned traffic management (UTM) companies, national organizations and fleet operators to embed into their own products, says Parker.

“What we’re doing is going beyond what a typical UTM company sees as its own customers and then providing the flight plans that we’ve received out to everybody,” he tells TechCrunch. “So, for example, Uber might use the [CRS] service to register all of Uber’s flights and Amazon might use the service to register all of Amazon’s flights — but together, via the API, they effectively can avoid each other.

“So that’s a service which connects everybody together, and only tells you when there’s conflict that’s expected to occur.”

Clearly, the Strategic de-confliction component will increase in utility as it gains more users — enabling it to increase the visibility it can provide of what’s being flown where and when.

Altitude Angel does not pretend it will be able to offer a comprehensive view of absolutely every artificial thing in the sky.

“One of the things we think is rife in the UTM industry today is false claims,” says Parker. “It would be really easy for us to market this wrongly — we could have done this to say this service guarantees no drones will ever crash. That’s simply not true. What it does guarantee, however, is any drone that has submitted a plan to us is going to be told up front whether it’s likely to conflict with another one.

“And when the tactical service comes online, again, we will be extremely clear — providing everything else you might conflict with is using that service then we can provide that separation.”

He points out that not even Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) can see all air traffic all of the time. So the CRS is pitched as a way for drone operators to increase awareness of what else might be flying in the vicinity — thereby reducing the risk of collision or a safety incident.

As regards the dynamic tactical de-confliction component of the CRS, which is designed to alert drone operators to unexpected craft in their vicinity, Altitude Angel says this is based on “tried and trusted safety technology.”

The core platform underpinning it has been in operation since 2016, according to Parker — and was originally used by general aviation pilots to request access to transit Class D airspace, meaning it’s “racked up thousands of requests” and had “a lot of scrutiny” globally, including from national air traffic services.

“It’s an extremely reliable and robust service,” he claims.

Altitude Angel is also layering on its GuardianUTMS airspace management platform. Parker flags that the company’s enterprise background is in massive distributed cloud systems — ergo, it’s used to handling something along the lines of 7 million-10 million API requests per month.

“So we think we’ve got a reasonably robust and reliable system,” he says. “One which can also tolerate failure and it can do a lot of self-healing. From an infrastructure perspective it’s very robust, and from an application perspective it’s been doing a lot of operational use cases and load for one of the world’s most trusted and respected ANSPs.”

“Usage is still increasing. We’re still learning from that. But again our main primary goal is to get this out, get it used, monitor it, make sure that we improve it over time. It’s kind of a crawl, walk and run type service,” he adds.

All Altitude Angel’s current customers are signed up to go live with the CRS — which Parker suggests will translate into some 5,000 to 6,000 flights per month feeding the de-confliction service.

“We’re then going to connect in our additional flights that have been shared with us as well so I think we’re talking about a fairly significant proportion of all of the flights that are being shared with any UTM today,” he continues. “What we’re then going to be doing is working with our ANSP customers to see if the permission requests that they’re currently managing can also be connected into that network. And I think that’s a really interesting area to explore.

“Because again we’re only doing this because, ultimately, everyone in the industry wants to go beyond line-of-sight, everyone wants to be able to have a more automated flight system. But the reality is the infrastructure just isn’t there on the ANSP and regulatory side — and the technology isn’t there, from a safety management perspective, on the commercial side either.

“So that’s the gap that we’re trying to plug here so that more people can access to do that.”

While it might make more sense for drone de-confliction platforms to be run by national bodies, rather than a commercial entity, Parker isn’t worried that regulators will swoop in and claim the space because the business is positioning itself to play multiple roles: Helping drone operators integrate and adapt to changeable regulations, while also making sure it can take on a gateway service role for ANSPs should governments decide a regulator should provide UTM.

“The technology that we provide to our customers we provide on our own developer platform for the commercial industry to use but we also provide a version of that same system, effectively, to ANSPs to be able to offer that service nationally,” he says.

“I think it’s important to recognize that many of those ANSPs aren’t required to do this yet. So they’re not necessarily deploying those foundations… The key piece that might be an interesting angle is that our commitment to those developer customers, and people who are using our commercial technology, is to abstract them away from whatever local regulations and differences might occur internationally.”

“In the U.K., if the government suddenly turns around to [U.K. air traffic operator] NATS and says ‘hey you guys have to provide UTM services for the whole country,’ it won’t be us that are operating the service but we’re very much hopeful that we’ll have the opportunity to provide NATS with the technology to actually provide that capability to the rest of the industry,” he adds, noting that Altitude Angel is already providing airspace user portal technology to NATS. 

“So, again, we’ve got this commercial side of the business — which is all about enabling those folks to integrate with the regulated community, and then we’ve got a technology capability [Guardian UTMS] that’s what we’re pushing to ANSPs to enable them to open up the skies and work with and embrace drones within their airspace estate.”