UTM - an interview with Ralf Heidger, DFS

Unmanned Aircraft Systems traffic Management

Drones and air traffic - no other problem  is as challenging as this one. From the very first beginning of the upcoming of drones, there have been incidents, where Unmanned Aircraft Systems have been seen by pilots while taking of or landing. Just a few days ago we heard about more incidents


Ralf Heidger is UAS issue manager at the German ATC. He will enlighten, what problems the DFS is facing and what solutions they see. He will contribute with a presentation and as participant in the technology panel discussion.




BUVUS team: Mr Heidger, the Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS) announced, that around 400.000 drones were used in Germany last year. How does this affect the work of the Air Traffic Control (ATC)?


Ralf Heidger: These numbers could be a serious thread to the safety of manned air traffic. We observe a growing number of incidents around airports, and a lack of aviation knowledge in the community of drone pilots. At the same time there are more and more professional drone operations requests, where also DFS is involved, e.g. in the control zones. We are also asked as professional partners in projects for the development of advanced drone operations, drone detection, and UTM design. A growing number of research projects have been initiated, where we participate or are requested to do so.


BUVUS team: The new German Drone Law obligates the user to put an identification plate on the UAV. Don’t we need a registration or even a license plate for drones?


Ralf Heidger: The DFS is convined that registration is necessary, and that there should be a national register of drones like for aircraft and for cars. This should not include toys. A risk-proportional approach of measures should be applied. We think that bigger drones, thus exposing more risk, should also carry electronic identification devices to make them observable by surveillance means, e.g. mobile telecommunication chips, and transponders for those flying in controlled airspace.


BUVUS team: The ATC as a governmental organization is working very actively to ensure safe flying and working with drones. What are your plans to ensure safe flights?


Ralf Heidger:  The approach is manifold:

  • With respect to regulation, we support a risk-proportional approach of measures: labelling, registration, electronic identification for the drone, qualifications for the operators or pilots, insurance obligation, but also promotions of awareness.
  • With respect to operations we support the application of the SORA methodology for drone operations risk assessment, and we try to identify what services would support safe and fair integration of drones into the air traffic system.
  • With respect to technology the evolution of drone surveillance, drone tracking, and the stepwise development of UAS traffic management (UTM). There are yet many open questions along the path, e.g. the payment model resp. the mandate for UTM, detection of non-cooperative drones, airspace structures in VLL, and many other aspects, but starting steps have to be taken. Due to this we also participate in related research projects to help technology to evolve.

BUVUS team: How would you describe “UAS traffic management” in just a few words, regarding daily professsional work and recreational use?


Ralf Heidger: Today’s tools on the market provide answers to the question “where can I fly in VLL” with different degrees of quality. Some tools also support the preparation of approval requests for professional missions. This happens in combination with features for registering drones and pilots or operators. Entered missions and WLAN-linked drones then contribute to a kind of a preliminary drone traffic situation display. However, this is only a starting point for UTM. UTM shall include live drone surveillance, tracking, and display to provide traffic situation awareness. That step will be a key enabler for BVLOS. Manned aircraft operations in that VLL airspace shall also be integrated. Professional missions will become more complex, as well as the eventually resulting conflicts. Therefore, we believe, UTM will stepwise evolve to a complex system, enabling the collaboration of many stakeholders.


BUVUS team: What do you expect from the CeBIT Unmanned Systems & Solutions?


Ralf Heidger: Such events can help to improve awareness, to understand the needs of all stakeholders, and specifically to bring together two worlds: the emerging, disruptive, fast-growing, technology-oriented UAS world with partially no knowledge about aviation on the one hand, and the well regulated, therefore often conservative, but safety-culture experienced world of manned aviation and air traffic management. Especially a common, properly evolved, and substantiated understanding of UAS traffic management seems to be crucial to take the right steps for a safe and fair integration of UAS into the air traffic system. Both worlds have good reason to quickly learn from each other.


Thank you for this interview and the answers.


Ralf Heidger was born 1961, lives in Wiesbaden, Germany, with his wife, without kids.

He joined DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH 2001, starting as head of the software development department for tower control and fallback systems in the system house of DFS. Since then, he has published ca. 30 papers on ATC, ATM, and now also on UTM software, architecture, on tracking, sensor data processing with Kalman filters and on multisensor fusion.

2001 - 2016 he established and headed a group of 49 software engineers, mathematicians, software testers, and documentalists to develop and maintain the multisensor data fusion system PHOENIX and the flightplan data processing system TFDPS/SHOWTIME that are deployed in all Tower Control units in Germany, and as fallback systems in all Control Centers of the country. He was responsible for about 30 projects of ATC and ATM software development in Germany and for international customers such as CISCEA Brazil, Nav Canada, Nav Portugal, ENAV Italy, Royal Thai Airforce, and LVNL Netherlands.

2016 he joined the Strategic Department for Corporate Development, where he is member of the Issue Management UAS, there responsible for all technical issues, specifically UTM, UAS, and its relations to ATM. He represents DFS in associations like GUTMA, EuroCAE, UAV DACH working groups, and others. The Issue Management UAS elaborates the DFS strategy for UAS and UTM.    

Before his time in the DFS he worked in IT industry 1986 - 2001 as technical director, software engineer and developer for expert systems, assistance Systems (Prolog, Expert System Shells, C), statistics (C, C++), radar data processing (assembler, C, C++), and tower control systems (C++) on Windows, Sun Solaris, and Linux systems.

He is M.A. of Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany, and member of DGON, WVS, Shark KV.

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