New platform opens the skies to drone users


A collaboration between Flemish air traffic controllers, pilots and researchers has yielded an app that will make it easier for drone users to know where, and if, they can fly their miniature planes

Airspace for everyone

Every day around 300,000 airplanes traverse the world’s skies, carrying millions of passengers. For all its magnitude, the spectacle is far from chaotic.

Air traffic controllers carefully monitor the location and the speed of each and every one of these aircrafts: Every pilot flies every plane according to a precisely defined route. Compared airplanes to drones – 1,000 of which are sold in Belgium every month – and the contrast couldn’t be bigger.

Drone users are very often amateurs who lack aviation knowledge and adequate training. Experts warn that if basic monitoring and control mechanisms aren’t put in place, the use of airspace by both manned and unmanned planes could have disastrous consequences.

To address the issue, the Belgian government is finilising its first drone legislation. The new law sets the minimum age of 16 for drone pilots and a maximum flying height of 90 metres. The legislation follows news last year that the technological sector was still being governed by a law on model aircraft use dating from 1954.

But the drone revolution is also creating opportunities for companies specialised in flight management technology. UniFly, a unique collaboration of Flemish air traffic controllers, pilots and drone researchers, has developed the first global solution that enables planes to share the airspace with their miniature, unmanned counterparts.

Mobile app

The group, a spin-off of the Flemish technology research institute Vito, has launched a software platform called SkyBridge that provides a central database for every drone-related application.

SkyBridge not only provides information on the airspace or the current legislation at a specific location, it also allows drone users to upload their flights or look up previous ones. The platform is accompanied by a mobile app.

Our platform prevents the potential problems caused by drone users

- Marc Kegelaers

“Our platform prevents the potential problems caused by drone users,” explains Marc Kegelaers, UniFly’s CEO. “With SkyBridge, users can easily check whether they’re permitted to fly or not, because of local regulations or aviation activities that might have already been planned in the area.”

The platform, he explains, can also be used by aircraft pilots to detect any drones in their vicinity. He says that the solution to finding a place for drones in conventional aviation can’t be provided by existing management systems. “These manned aviation systems were not developed for a very large – and growing – number of users, who very often lack aviation knowledge.”

Global solutions

The platform’s interface is adapted to each user’s needs to maximise market reach, Kegelaers explains.  “We have features for private drone users, professional users, policing bodies, aviation authorities, air traffic controllers and drone manufacturers.”

The government of Flanders seems sold. At last month’s Drone Days trade fair in Brussels, where the platform was officially unveiled, innovation minister Philippe Muyters said that SkyBridge answers the need – both in Flanders and internationally – to know where flying is safe, and where it isn’t.

“The platform represents an accessible solution to the problem and a vital link in the future development of drone applications,” he said.

UniFly represents an accessible solution and a vital link in the future of drone applications

- Philippe Muyters

Thanks to the support from the Flemish government’s investment agency PMV, and the QBIC Arkiv Fund, UniFly currently boasts a capital of €1.2 million.

But the Flemish sky represents only a tiny portion of the world’s airspace, so UniFly is constantly on the lookout for opportunities abroad. The company, housed at Antwerp Airport, participates in many international activities.

In Switzerland, UniFly’s technology played a part in a demonstration in which drones were monitored with satellite communication. The company’s software is also used by American tech firm MTSI, which also acts as its distributor in the US.

Up to date

Boosting its portfolio even further, in a recent European competition for air traffic management software, UniFly finished second out of 81 participants, trailing only behind the industry giant Airbus.

Once the federal government signs the new legislation into law, drones will be divided into three categories, depending on their size and purpose. The smallest, used by recreational users, won’t be allowed to fly higher than 10 metres. The limit of 45 metres will be reserved for drones weighing less than five kilograms, and their operators will need to be at least 16 years old and have a flying certificate.

The largest and heaviest drones – those weighing up to 150 kilograms – will be limited to 91 metres above the ground. They include research drones used to monitor agriculture or measure CO2 emissions.

One of SkyBridge’s strengths is that it integrates all the legislation on drones and manned aviation that exists in the world. “This is indeed a huge endeavour, as every country or region has its own specific legal peculiarities,” Kegelaers says. “We hope that the government will soon present the new legislation, so that Flemish customers can also use our platform to its full potential.”

Photo courtesy Ingimage