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Integrating unmanned aircraft systems into the global airspace safely


The Global Air Navigation Plan (GANP) is ICAO’s framework for integrating manned, remotely piloted, and unmanned autonomous aerial systems.

By David Bjellos & Dejan Damjanovic
Contributing writers

uasImagine life before smartphones. Now consider the likely expansion of drone technology already employed across myriad disciplines – police, fire rescue, inter-hospital tissue transfer, agriculture, and, yes, pizza delivery – and a similar trajectory seems imminent.

If industry projections are to be believed, the number of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) will exceed those of conventionally manned aircraft in 2 to 3 decades, and will then increase exponentially. They will commingle and compete for airspace, especially with helicopters in the lower levels of the global airspace. Integrating them safely – both in the US National Airspace System (NAS) and globally – has already begun in earnest.

In the early 19th century, international commerce on the high seas switched from sails to steam. The incentive was purely economic, and required little effort beyond building new vessels to accommodate engines and carry fuel as well as payload.

Contrasting that pivotal event with UASs, the technical challenges are intensified by our global airspace differences, outdated legacy information transfer (Notams, AIRAC) and the disparate systems (think meters vs feet, transition levels, altimetry) of applying rules of the air.

We are compelled to comply with each country’s aeronautical information publication (AIP) requirements before operating in their airspace, and the data available can be on a 28- or 56-day-old publication cycle (sometimes longer). Something better is needed.

Born from this need, ICAO promulgated the Procedures for Air Navigation Services – Aeronautical Information Management (PANS-AIM) to address the need to modernize data flow and dissemination. It is intended to replace the periodic data cycles with real-time updates, essentially eliminating “publications” and making the information available in real time. When the US NAS was shut down in January 2023, it painfully highlighted the need for modernization of an outdated system.


A picture conveys so much more than words. Read the textual Notam, then look at the graphic and its relation to the runways. Instantly, the graphic provides improved situational awareness. This illustrates the future of PANS-AIM integration for airport operations. Airspace will have similar color codings and readability.

ICAO and the global initiative

The Global Air Navigation Plan (GANP) produced by ICAO is currently building a framework for the 193 member countries to follow for UAS integration. Note that GANP is applicable to all airspace users – manned, remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), autonomous vehicles, and unmanned air systems/advanced air mobility vehicles (UASs/AAMs).

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on UASs/AAMs. AAM is the category of UAS that will carry people/larger payloads in bigger vehicles. Passage of the Notam Improvement Act of 2023 was critical for GANP to succeed, and was spurred in large part by the PANS-AIM initiative.

Basically, GANP is the ICAO pathway for all countries to move their flight-critical data from paper/legacy storage systems to a digital database that will be called the Aeronautical Data Catalog (ADC). (See Table 1 above.) All data would be input at the time of the event, such as runway closure, deteriorating weather, unforecast wind, or volcanic activity, and the ADC would be updated immediately.

Our current methods of obtaining Notams and AIRAC data would change dramatically. Service providers like ForeFlight, Honeywell, Collins, and Thales may eventually adapt their distribution methods for graphical Notams directly to the pilots’ primary flight displays and/or EFBs (installed or portable) for near-instantaneous updates in flight.

table 1 conventional

Aeronautical Data Catalog (ADC). A globally harmonized “super PANS-AIM” data framework that also supports the UAS/AAM ecosystem will be the critical component in achieving successful implementation and interoperability within GANP. This framework would support the evolving definitions of SARPs for UASs/AAMs that ensure the ability to comply with member state and regional regulatory frameworks, as well as global best practices as documented by ICAO and regional/national CAAs and ANSPs. The challenge for stakeholders outside of the traditional aviation community is the mapping of textual rules and regulations into the ADC data dictionary. A1-10 above will be especially challenging.

Challenges and opportunities

This new aeronautical data catalog will be populated with data from each member state as they implement their new ecosystem for manned/autonomous air vehicles at local, regional, and international level. ICAO will formulate and publish best practices, and member states will follow with their own standards and recommended practices (SARPs). Eventually, there will be no more AIP or AIRAC – only the ADC, which changes in real time and is transmitted via SWIM.

The data sources on which all pilots rely to operate safely have 3 distinct levels – static, dynamic, or random. The information flow is circular by necessity – each unit needs to know the status of the preceding and subsequent unit to work. Shifting toward a digital, real-time product will speed data transfer between these 5 data sources for safer, more predictable flightpaths, enroute times, and effective departure/arrival sequencing (essential for 4D operations).

The challenge at present is that not all global airspace is PBN-compliant (nor is every country an ICAO member state), and for true autonomous flight operations, member states must improve their Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS globally, NextGen in the US) so that the 3 basic requirements of UAS integration – (1) migration to PBN standards, (2) evolution of AAM flight operations and protocols, and (3) increasing application of artificial intelligence (AI) – will allow for smaller 4D airspace buffers and higher loss-of-separation confidence.

System wide information management (SWIM) and ERAM are examples of US FAA compliance. Note that the US NAS and SESAR countries will be prioritized under SWIM.

Autonomous aircraft face little traffic in remote areas, but their success (ie, business model) will not work without high-density populations and customer-rich city centers to produce sufficient yields for profitability. Without question, this category will require the full capabilities of GANP/PANS-AIM to be successful.

This will not be remedied by government, but rather by a private/public partnership of all flight ops stakeholders (ie, traditional ones like Jeppesen & LIDO, and emerging ones like Google, CIRIUM and the new breed of UAS/AAM commercial ANSPs.

Thus, we face (again) an evolutionary step in growth. Keeping the data to realistic levels for manned crews will be a challenge, and emphasis will be placed on prioritizing what is truly needed for each mission, especially 3D graphics (eg, taxiway closures at ORD [O’Hare, Chicago IL], JFK [JF Kennedy, New York NY], and BOS [Logan, Boston MA]). Ensuring the quality and accuracy of the data needed to sustain autono­mous vehicles will be from the standards established in ICAO PANS-AIM Doc 10066.


This graphic shows an autonomous vehicle departing, making multiple stops, and returning without operator guidance, following different safety design criteria built into the sense-and-avoid functions and geo-fencing protections.

Algorithms and loss of separation

If only autonomous UAS were airborne, the deconflicting solutions written into the algorithms would be far simpler. But these aircraft will encounter potential conflicts with remotely piloted vehicles and manned aircraft whose pilots’ actions cannot (yet) be predicted. Pilots are trained to be both predictive and reactive, and this ability will place limitations on how manned and autonomous vehicles can coexist safely.

UASs are currently limited to line-of-sight maneuvers (by remote operators), but will progress to beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) to expand their delivery footprints when autonomous operations are approved. The responsibility for sense-and-avoid then rests with the installed aircraft equipment itself (eg, TCAS II v7.1, ADS-B In/Out, future ACAS Xu and sXu) as described in the Eurocontrol ACAS Guide, March 2022.

Companies like Amazon, Flytex, Kroger, and Walmart have announced food/package deliveries by drone to customers as soon as this year. Some have begun limited trials. The Chinese city of Shenzhen has been using Meituan for food delivery for more than a year, with 100,000-plus deliveries in 2022 alone. Amazon Prime Air, Google Wing, UPS, Zipline, and others, have plans to begin parcel delivery and have already obtained their Part 135 certificates.

implementationMember states and industry will need to collaborate on their ADCs, so that the actual hardware and software systems that will support UAS/AAM operations will also be able to comply accu­rately with and support those regulations and procedures (In the US it will be UTM, in the EU it will be U-Space).


The relentless pursuit of excellence demands research, analysis, skepticism, and advocacy for our fantastic industry. The complexity of the subject presented here is perhaps more than the average airman needs to accomplish his/her task, but the information is critical to the future of our airspace and how we will all eventually be expected to perform and integrate. It promises to be an extraordinary improvement.

We can either be supporters of change and technology, or remain the deckhands of the great clipper sailing fleets of the 1800s. Without question, they lost – in less than a generation – some of the finest seamen and tall ships’ masters who could sail from London to Australia using only a compass, sextant, and an accurate timepiece, and whose seamanship was the envy of everyone who braved the high seas. But that necessary, inevitable change increased speed, payload efficiency, and saved time; crews were better paid, the ships safer, and the economy improved for all involved.

Today’s shift to UAS/AAM integration is the next iteration of change in our era. And this time, the UAS/AAM cohort will complement and support existing manned aircraft, and not simply replace them. If future drones indeed represent 2, 5, or 10 times more airborne vehicles than conventional aircraft, then our system for collecting, revising, and distributing aeronautical information needs to be 2, 5, or 10 times better.

As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.

DavidDavid Bjellos has been writing for PP since 2004. He is an active airman flying a G650 based in south Florida, a former Board of Directors liaison to the UAS Committee for the Helicopter Association International, and a subject matter expert in VTOL operations.

DamjanovicDejan Damjanovic is the project manager for Aviation Geospatial Solutions with Woolpert. He is a senior enterprise architect who has worked for Jeppesen and other geospatial service providers, and is a subject matter expert on 4D geospatial UAS integration and the strategic integration of autonomous vehicles into global airspace. Damjanovic is a former commercial pilot.