AURA Networks FCC Licensed Aviation Spectrum

Higher, Farther and Safer: AURA Network Systems Enables Autonomous Aviation in Controlled Airspace

By: Dawn Zoldi (Colonel, USAF Ret.)

They say communication is key. This adage applies not only to life in general, but also to integrating uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) into the US National Airspace System (NAS).

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Over a decade ago, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) identified the need for UAS-specific aviation communications capabilities, and related policies, to enable routine commercial beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight in controlled airspace. Achieving this, they said, would require both allocated frequency spectrum for civil UAS Control and Non-Payload Communication (CNPC) links (those between the UAS and the pilot on the ground) and related minimum performance standards. These would, in turn, drive relevant UAS communication policies and guidance.

McLean, Virginia-based AURA (Advanced Ultra Reliable Aviation) Network Systems has been spearheading efforts to fulfill these needs. The company obtained the first Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license for FAA-compliant aviation spectrum to create dedicated communication channels for crewed and uncrewed aviation, including CNPC data and voice service. This enables communications between autonomous and traditional aviation on a specialized, reliable and secure private network. The company has also engaged in related policy and research and development (R&D) efforts. The goal: to unlock a wide range of BVLOS autonomous aviation operations in controlled airspace. To help advance that objective, AURA has just closed $75 million in funding, including investments from Fortress Investment Group, Mudrick Capital Management and Tracker Capital Management.

Communication First

For the FAA, safety remains one job in the NAS. Uncrewed BVLOS flights raise novel safety concerns, with no onboard pilot to see and avoid obstacles. UAS operators require special FAA authorizations to operate routine BVLOS flights.

To obtain these approvals, operators must demonstrate reliable and robust command and control (C2). A critical component of this C2 concerns the CNPC links. These links provide critical safety data by and between the pilot on the ground and the uncrewed aircraft (UA).

These CNPC links must demonstrate compliance with RTCA DO-377A, Minimum Aviation System Performance Standards for C2 Link Systems Supporting Operations of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in US Airspace, as well as related performance standards. The types of information this 310-page standard addresses, which a C2 link system must exchange, include both:

  • The commands from the remote pilot – meaning the commands sent over a forward link from the ground control station (GCS) to the UAS; other
  • The status and data from a UAS – such as the telemetry data sent over a return link from the UAS to the GCS, all necessary to ensure the pilot can operate the UA in a manner that protects people and/or property from harm.

While there are several ways to meet RTCA DO-377A, licensed spectrum makes all the difference. Bill Tolpegin, CEO of AURA Network Systems, said, “Gaps in C2 cannot occur during BVLOS flights.”

He continued, “Most of us have had experience when driving along, listening to a favorite song, where the reception glitches and all you hear is static or dead air. It is one thing to have that happen during the second or third verse; it’s quite another if signal loss involves an aircraft that may weigh a ton and is traveling at hundreds of miles an hour above an urban area.”

By developing specific technology and building a network dedicated for aviation using FCC-licensed greenfield aviation spectrum, all geared towards demonstrating FAA compliance, AURA plans to accelerate the autonomous industry’s deployment timeline for routine commercial BVLOS operations.

The Licensed Spectrum Difference

Tolpegin understands spectrum. Before taking the helm of AURA, as CEO of the C-Band Alliance, he helped secure almost $10 billion to compensate the satellite industry for relinquishing much-needed mid-band airwaves to spur 5G deployment across America. His extensive experience also includes stints as CEO of OTA Broadcasting and various satellite, internet and wireless companies such as EarthLink, Globalstar and SSL.

Now, under his leadership, AURA has secured the FCC’s first-ever approval of greenfield aviation-dedicated spectrum, in the ultra-high frequency (UHF) band at 450 MHz, without altitude restrictions. Greenfield means that this spectrum is unencumbered by previous or concurrent uses.

“Most commercial networks also have to figure out how to divide up their spectrum bandwidth between its various customers,” Tolpegin explained. “For example, satellite companies may have users who have to share their bandwidth with government users as well as commercial industrial users. Our spectrum is free of conflicts. The network we’re deploying is fully dedicated to aviation communications.”

This allows AURA to build a clean-sheet, customized and private network from the ground up. “There has never been a network designed just for our aviation use cases,” Tolpegin noted, “but we’re able to do it because we have a clean slate of spectrum.”

This unique FCC license will support BVLOS UAS operations at all altitudes across the nation, not just the relatively low-level operations allowed today. The propagation characteristics of this band make it highly cost-effective to provide nationwide coverage of a deterministic low-latency CNPC link at all altitudes for BVLOS.

Initial Successes

AURA has been busy over the past several years demonstrating the assured communications consistency, reliability and latency for its network, as required in RTCA DO-377A, through tests on the ground and in the air. On the policy front, the company has also been busy securing various wins.

On the testing front, this summer in western Maryland and Springfield, Ohio, the company successfully demonstrated its critical communications links. These flights simulated remotely piloted BVLOS regional air cargo flights in controlled airspace using a Cessna Caravan outfitted with an AURA airborne radio and voice communications module. The flights underscored what the future of air transportation will look like utilizing AURA’s proprietary air interface and services like C2, Detect and Avoid (DAA) and air traffic control (ATC) voice relay.

AURA has also been active all over the policy arena. Its Regulatory Affairs Director, Jim Williams, the former FAA Executive Lead for the UAS Integration Office, participated in the FAA’s BVLOS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC).

RTCA’s Special Committee (SC-228), charged with developing C2 link standards for safe operations of UAS and Urban Air Mobility (UAM) aircraft operations within the NAS by 2023, named Williams its group co-chair.

RTCA also approved AURA’s request to create Minimum Operational Performance Standards (MOPS) for UHF C2 links for avionics utilizing the company’s 450 MHz spectrum as part of SC-228. The committee’s final standard is expected to result in an FAA regulatory means of compliance for C2.

NASA has also selected AURA for its Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) National Campaign as an infrastructure partner for demonstrations, communications, navigation and surveillance flight testing activities.

Additionally, the company entered into a four-year Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the FAA to research performance standards for ATC voice communications supporting UAS within the NAS. This research is designed to inform RTCA DO-377 Minimum Aviation System Performance Standards (MASPS) for ATC voice. The project will measure latency and evaluate voice quality/speech intelligibility of air-to-ground radio-path transmissions between UAS pilots and FAA voice-switch air traffic controller positions.

All this work will advance the timeline to integrate air taxis, cargo delivery aircraft and other new air vehicle concepts into national airspace.

what’s next

Today the AURA network consists of 57 sites that provide coverage nationwide, including across Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa. It also has customer-driven macro and small sites as well as micro sites for supplemental coverage in the form of “AURA Go Kits.”

As for the future, AURA plans to keep building. “We found that many key components of our system, such as necessary antennas, high-performance radios, software and other key technology components for an aviation-designed network using our 450 MHz band simply did not exist,” Tolpegin noted. “So, we’re building everything we need to accelerate the industry’s deployment of routine commercial BVLOS operations.”

According to Tolpegin, “The latest funding is a major milestone for our company and an accelerant as we head into 2023. The financing enables AURA to continue our core development work while providing us with the financial runway to launch commercial services.”

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Dawn MK Zoldi (Colonel, USAF, Retired) is a licensed attorney with 28 years of combined active duty military and federal civil service to the US Air Force. She is the CEO & Founder of P3 Tech Consulting and an internationally recognized expert on uncrewed aircraft system law and policy. Zoldi contributes to several magazines and hosts popular tech podcasts. Zoldi is also an Adjunct Professor for two universities, at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In 2022, she received the Airwards People’s Choice Industry Impactor Award, was recognized as one of the Top Women to Follow on LinkedIn and listed in the eVTOL Insights 2022 PowerBook. For more information, follow her on social media and visit her website at: https://www.p3techconsulting.com.

Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.

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