Since drone flying became increasingly popular, the number of special flight requests increased steadily in the last years. In 2020, the Special Flight Office (SFO) received 2’226 new requests for special flights. Roughly, two thirds of the requests were for drones, the rest for a wide range of aircraft types ranging from helicopters to model aircraft, balloons and sky lanterns.
In the old SFO process, the requests are received as PDF with attachments. Each request is analysed based on the material supplied, usually maps of some sort with the activity area painted on them and delivered as a PDF along with a description of the activity. The SFO officers frequently have to contact the requestor for clarifications. Depending on the result of the analysis, coordination with ATC is necessary before the request can be accepted. It should be mentioned that the pilot of the special flight needs to contact ATC before actually starting the mission to make sure that nothing is preventing the flight from taking place.
This is a lengthy process and requires a 10 day advance notice for all these activities to complete. A change was due. The new process needed to be easy to use, more efficient, less time consuming and with standardised and structured information available to all stakeholders involved.
In the context of the U-Space development, Skyguide decided to replace the paper based process with a digital process that allows all stakeholders to work with the same information and visualisations without having to duplicate information from one media to another. A seamless digital process it should become, fulfilling all the requirements mentioned before.
End of January, the new digital process was launched. Users can now use the SFO Tool (see https://www.skyguide.ch/en/services/special-flights/) to enter their flight path or area, the activity they want to perform and the type of aircraft that will be used. The system will then determine whether a request needs to be filed. If this is the case, the user can complete the information and send it off. This initiates the digital SFO process owned and managed by the SFO staff. They ensure that all impacted stakeholder are addressed in process. Thanks to the new system, everybody is using the same set of information accessible through a web interface.
Currently, the SFO handles all drone requests. The U-Space Facility Maps (UFM) will be used to further automate SFO requests. The system will then use the UFM to determine whether the planned flight creates a risk to other air traffic and will guide the user accordingly.
First results of the new process show that the tool based approach eliminates the media breaks and retyping of information. This is less time consuming and less error prone. Even administrative tasks like archiving the requests on a different system is automated. It is also easier for the requesters as an impressive number of some 300 requests in the first two weeks of operations demonstrates. However, a new system also brings along its quirks and some things need to get used to. Supporting the end users is vitally important in the beginning and the SFO staff put in some extra effort to do this.
Digitising the business is not easy but the benefits for all stakeholder outweigh the time and money used to achieve this.