Nikiforov, Chemezov&Co intend to create national unmanned vehicle control system

The national operator to control traffic of unmanned aerial and ground vehicles will be located in Innopolis

Ex-Minister of Communications of Russia Nikolay Nikiforov told Realnoe Vremya that the creation of a consortium of investors to introduce a national IT system to manage unmanned vehicles' traffic was coming to an end. It became known last week that Rostec State Corporation joined the capital of the Innopolis company Unmanned Vehicle Traffic Management Centre it founded in July. After that, big engineers of unmanned vehicles will be able to join the structure (probably Yandex). Meanwhile, GLONASS NP considers this story just a media stunt.

Rostec goes after Nikolay Nikiforov

Rostec and ex-Minister of Communications Nikolay Nikiforov’s company Diginavis set up a joint enterprise the Unmanned Vehicle Traffic Management Centre registered in Innopolis, the press service of the state corporation said. The joint venture will create infrastructure to manage ground and aerial unmanned vehicles and develop proposals to improve legislation in this sphere, the state corporation notes.

More precisely, Rostec SC joined authorised capital of the Unmanned Vehicle Traffic Management Centre CJSC, which was founded by Nikolay Nikiforov in July. As a result, Rostec got 34% of the company, while the share of Diginavis reduced from 75 to 41%, according to data in SPARK-Interfax. Nikiforov holds another 25% of Project 7 company directly and indirectly through Diginavis. Generally speaking, Diginavis manages a couple of companies — Soyuz CJSC, Project-10, Project-11 and Project-24, which specialise in developing software (created earlier this year, financial results are equal to zero).

It is likely that they were created to enable big IT players to enter them. The main goal of the joint venture in the long term is to become a national operator managing unmanned vehicles' traffic, Rostec claimed. For this purpose, the company plans to create an IT network of dispatcher centres with which it will control traffic across the country.

Shot at status of national operator

At first sight, Rostec’s big ambitions to became a national operator look a bit premature, as legislation falls behind the rapid development of information technologies, the operator’s legal status isn’t determined, and the market of unmanned vehicles itself hasn’t yet become mass and widespread. What to use to manage? How to manage? Why is Rostec entering this aviation project that will have to be “put to earth”?

Ideologist of the programme Nikolay Nikiforov whom Realnoe Vremya managed to turn out to doesn’t doubt the prospects of the idea. “Yes, indeed, we are creating an operator company that can become an operator of the national unmanned vehicle traffic control system,” he claimed. “Today it isn’t presupposed by Russian legislation, and we probably are going ahead of time. But it is obvious for us that such a system will be necessary and sought after soon.”

A prototype of the transport IT system to manage unmanned traffic is already ready. According to the former communications minister, it was designed during last year by a team of specialists at Diginavis, which borrowed money to finance the development. “This system is integrated with Yandex’s unmanned car management centre: the route is approved by the IT operator, there is exchange of information during its movement in the city,” he noted the features of the project. After Rostec recognised its workability and productive, the state corporation decided to join the capital of Diginavis’ subsidiary.

On land and in the sky

Now the task is to expand and test the system for different types of unmanned vehicles. “The project’s peculiarity is a possibility to organise traffic of unmanned vehicles not only on land but in the air,” Rostec’s message reads. “Unmanned flying vehicles for 2-6 passengers are developed in many countries, their use will require an automatic regime of interaction of unmanned vehicles and the air traffic management system.”

In other words, the operator aspires to manage not only unmanned ground but also aerial vehicles. Nikolay Nikiforov promises fantastic events: according to him, the testing of the flying taxi will happen in 1,5 years.

“It will be able to cover 100 kilometres and fly over a river without a bridge. It isn’t experimental quadrocopters, it will be precisely taxi,” he states.

To enable a taxi fly, an unmanned transport management system is needed. “It is like usual flights. A plane takes off and is managed in the air according to special radio frequencies, pilots communicate with the dispatcher via radio channels. Who will speak here with whom? This is why an automatic system is created that will provide automatic data exchange. It is a long-term project,” Nikolay Nikiforov explained our newspaper promising technology-related tasks.

Yandex to come after Rostec

“Why does Rostec need this? It has great skills in information protection and creation of highly reliable systems,” the ex-communications minister said.

As an analogue, Nikiforov put an example of Rostec and Almaz-Antey’s experience in creating an air traffic management system. Aviation vehicles’ traffic above Russia is managed within it. “Rostec is specialised in the creation of such systems. We think this cooperation will have a deep meaning, and here we complement each other well,” he stressed.

At the same time, the ideologist of the project hasn’t gathered a whole consortium of partners, though Rostec is becoming an anchor there. “We plan that other representatives of the sector will join the company’s capital,” Nikiforov says. “Actually there is interest, talks are held, but we can’t make them public so far. We hope it will be a consortium that will implement this project,” Mr Nikiforov noted.

Nikiforov didn’t say what investments the consortium planned to have, but experts suppose that the development and introduction of the transport system would cost no less than $200 million and Yandex could come after Rostec. Nikolay Nikiforov looks at not only the Russian but also the foreign market. Experts estimate that the market of smart transport systems using the latest technologies and creating a more comfortable and integrated system to transport passengers and freight will reach $57,4bn by 2024.

Meanwhile, the question of who should manage unmanned traffic in the country — the state or a private company — remains unanswered. Of course, it is exceptionally the government’s prerogative, but Rostec’s partners have ideas about it: “For instance, the separate State Air Traffic Management Corporation FUE performs the function of air traffic management. But we think that it is more reasonable if public and private partnership manages unmanned traffic on land and in the air and it had different representatives of the market. It is a more market model because everything develops dynamically and there is a lot of unsettled technical norms and rules. This is why such a model seems to us more favourable,” Nikiforov noted.

GLONASS NP: “It is just a media stunt”

GLONASS Non-Commercial Partnership, which is a working group eliminating legislative barriers in developing unmanned transport, thinks that we already have everything that needed to be corrected in legislation, and it is early to change something else. They reminded that according to the government’s decree an experiment was launched on 1 December last year that enabled engineers to launch unmanned vehicles on roads and understand the feasibility of the use of unmanned vehicles, not only technological but also economic.

“Is it possible to make the trips cheaper? Will it be possible to make the trips cheaper? They will be able to evaluate it during the experiment, which will end in 2022. But we’ve seen a Yandex unmanned car violating the road traffic code even if it was managed by a human.

As soon as the legal experiment ends, and this will happen in 2022, the Ministry of Industry and Trade and Avtonet will raise the issue of creating a full-fledged legislative base,” Realnoe Vremya was responded at Glonass.

Alternative legislative initiatives appear at the same time. A bill on unmanned vehicle regulation has already been introduced to the State Duma. “We think it is necessary and needed. The more participants in the discussion the better. However, it is early at the moment to talk about creating big legislation, as it is unclear if ordinary citizens will need unmanned transport or not, if it is safe or not. Yandex technologies are tested now. Other engineers aren’t ready to deal with it,” a representative of GLONASS noted. “There is nothing to regulate at the moment, as there is no unmanned transport market so far.”

In their opinion, unmanned vehicles will start to be used massively no earlier than 2030-2040s, while all statements about this market are just a media stunt at the moment. “Speaking objectively, it was said as early as 15 years ago that unmanned cars would start to be massively used in the 2019-2020s. We can say with full responsibility that there won’t be unmanned cars on roads in 2020, 2021 and 2025. All that needed to be done in legislation has already been done,” Realnoe Vremya’s interlocutor concluded.

By Luiza Ignatyeva