Don’t Fly Blind: The Business of Air Traffic Awareness for D…

Image from INVOLI

UTM, air traffic awareness, remote ID and tracking, and collision avoidance are all hot topics in the drone industry.  As these frameworks and technologies develop, risks will decrease, regulations will ease, and the applications that commercial drones are regularly able to perform will expand dramatically.

There is always, however, more than one way to skin the proverbial cat: and that makes the problem of tracking air traffic challenging.  At last week’s Commercial UAV Expo Europe, DRONELIFE met one of the companies leading the pack in Europe.  Swiss- based INVOLI is attacking the problem from the perspectives of three different stakeholders: drone operators, drone manufacturers, and unmanned traffic management (UTM) stakeholders.

In this interview,  INVOLI’s CEO Manu Lubrano discusses the difference between UTM and air traffic awareness, where they are in the development process, and what their plans are for the next year.

DRONELIFE (DL):  For our readers not familiar with INVOLI can you please tell our readers a little bit about yourselves and what you are up to?

Manu Lubrano: “At INVOLI, we are providing air traffic data to drones, data gathered through a network of in-house developed detection devices, deployed as a network covering a designated area over existing ground infrastructure. The identification signals thus detected are ADS-B and transponder mode S and, in some areas, FLARM. This information is shown on our platform to be used by drone operators to perform safe missions and to even implement automatic collision avoidance strategies. We really aim at complementing the coverage from traditional radars which do not see what’s happening at low altitude – where the drones are flying.”


DL:   It seems like much of the value is identifying “foreign aircraft.” What’s the difference between what you do and what other UTM providers do?

Manu Lubrano: “Our main differentiator from UTMs is that we provide air traffic data, particularly at low altitude where most drones fly today, while they are offering, in very simple words, drone traffic management services (like ANSPs [air navigation service providers] offer air traffic management services for planes, but for drones). As I said, this is in very simple words, as what they do is a lot more complex than that.

Where we come into the picture is by complementing these services with air traffic data coming from our ground-based detection system, basically providing the relevant information on air traffic, such as speed, altitude, direction etc. This way, the drone pilot gets the necessary air traffic awareness it needs to safely share the sky with manned aircraft.”

DL:  How did you get the idea for INVOLI?


Manu Lubrano: “A few years ago, while I was working for Swiss drone manufacturer senseFly, I founded together with some colleagues an association called “Drone Adventures”, meant to promote the use of drones for humanitarian missions. During one of these missions, the drone was doing an automatic flight when all of a sudden, an aircraft appeared from the (very low) clouds and it was only the pilot’s incredible skills which avoided a disaster. And that is when it all started: the idea of a system allowing drone pilots to be aware in advance of incoming air traffic so that they could anticipate the proper reactions and that everyone could fly safely was born. Then, together with my co-founders, we embarked on this crazy adventure which is known today as Involi.”

DL:  At what stage are you in in your development?  Do you plan on partnering with a UTM company?  If so, can you tell us about your plans in that area?

Manu Lubrano: “As a young drone-related company  operating in a booming industry, we are continuously developing and improving our system, hardware and software. But what is specific to our case is the network of our sensors which need to be capillary and redundant to achieve their purpose and therefore our focus is on the deployment. We consider ourselves a technology agnostic solution and so we are aiming at being able to be compatible with any UTM platform.

And if there were any partnership in discussion, we couldn’t mention it, it would be confidential (smile).”

DL:  How do you get the ground-based stations placed?  Can you talk more about this?

ML: “Our deployment is made in cooperation with infrastructure partners, such as telecommunication or real estate companies: for example, in Switzerland, we are installing on Swisscom cell towers or on the rooftops of Swiss Prime Site properties. This way, we benefit from very good locations for our coverage and we are able to deploy very fast, the point being to achieve a comprehensive capillary network which ensures there would be no more blind spots in terms of air traffic, as it is the case today.”

DL:  What are you plans for the next 3-6 months?

Manu Lubrano: “Deployment, deployment, deployment. Our plan is to cover all Switzerland by 2020. and in the meantime extend our coverage to other European countries and elsewhere. Also, besides the deployment, we are working to improve the user experience of our platform to add some interesting features for our clients.”

DL:  Why did you come to Commercial UAV Expo Europe?  What are you hoping to accomplish?

Manu Lubrano: “Well, I came here because they invited me (laughs). Joke aside, let me first say that it was an honour to be a panelist at Commercial UAV Expo as it is a high-quality event gathering all the important players of the industry. The goal of my participation is to introduce our solution to these players, at least to the ones who don’t know us yet, and to take the pulse of the industry, while catching up with our longer standing acquaintances – as I said, everyone is here.

DL:  Are there any questions that you had wished that you had been asked but were not?

Manu Lubrano: “No, the questions were great! But if I were to add something it would be this: to infinity and beyond!

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