July 12, 2019

Blog: Visiting EUROCONTROL, discussing Urban Air Mobility

During my visit to EUROCONTROL HQ in Brussels and the European U-space Networks third workshop, I got in contact with many interesting projects and people. For one, there is an interesting project in Toulouse – Mobilité Aérienne Urbaine with Airbus where the city is very involved. They are trying to implement Urban Air Mobility services for people. Google Wing and Uber Elevate was also there, presenting their intitiatives and progress.

I also met Mikael Shamim from Helicus, who is the project manager of an interesting program in Antwerpen where they had connected all hospitals and are transporting blood and samples with drones between them. They started in 2016 and has done flight tests since 2018 at drone test areas. In September 25 they will perform the first urban UTM integrated BVLOS tests as part of a EU funded project, that will continue as part of two other projects already until 2021. I asked them to broadcast live so we could watch from the smart city congress Nordic Edge in Stavanger and they said that they’ll think about it.

So what did I learn from the workshop? Actually many things. What we are trying to do here is to design a new socio technical system – safe, secure and sustainable drone traffic in cities. That means having to understand something completely new and – to make it even harder – add a new dimension to our thinking in the same time. So far this has – on an European level – been done mostly by technicians which means that it is only the technical point of view that has been addressed. But now the cities are entering the stage, adding the social perspective, turning it to a complex multi layered challenge.

Here are some of my insights about what needs to be done in order for us to proceed:

First we (laypeople) need to understand that UAM means Urban Air Mobility refers to vehicles in the city airspace – which can be large or small flying vehicles that are or aren’t manned. It can be velocopters, drones, helicopters or whatever airborne vehicle you can think of. This is important to think about since  almost all other acronyms with a U in the beginning within this field are referring to “Unmanned” (UAV (unmanned air vehicle) UTM (unmanned aircraft system traffic management) UAS (unmanned aerial system). It is easy to get confused here.

Secondly – the term U-space is a unique European term that defines what we are talking about. The problem with it – at least in my oppinion – is that it is very unclear. The main EU UAM project SESAR JU defines it like this: “the European framework for safe and drone operations in very low-level air space”. They don’t specify what kind of environment they mean. Low-level air space in a forest, over a field or a sea or in a city are completely different things and the disparate conditions of these environments are immense. And “drone” means unmanned but we are also talking about manned velocopters in this context. So something has to be done about this term before we can proceed.

Thirdly – in the U-space network we mix apples and pears when we talk – as you already have seen examples of earlier in the text. This lack of structure makes it hard to understand and to progress because it is almost impossible to settle things and then proceed to next step or level. This could be dealt with by:

  • defining the term U-space in a more useful way
  • defining the environments where we want to use drones and how to equip them technically and regulate them and also how we should handle the spaces and transitions in between them
  • divide the services in different categories – 1) transport people 2) collect data 3) transport things 4) perform other services
  • set and agree on the meanings of terms and acronyms to avoid confusion
  • start dividing the airspace in altitudes and talk about how to map it in the different environments
  • start talking about the different abilities the drones need to have – fly really fast, have long endurance or be really strong – for instance to begin to test if this effects regulations, use of airspace and other areas
  • talk about the connectivity and define what kind of data needs to run through what kind of networks – command & control (C&C), streamed collected data to cloud, device to device (D2D), unmanned transport management (UTM) (should be developed together with connected vehicles on road) aso, to ensure secure, safe and sustainable UAM services
  • define the specific challenges of a city – together with the city administration and the citizens and the other kinds of environment

Most of what is mentioned above are due to a common language and precise terms that we agree on. Maybe we could look at how the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) has done. They have  united several telecommunications organizations and provided their members with a stable environment and developed a common language for the global mobile telephony ecosystem. As an example they have in detail specified different environments for Urban areas as well as for Rural. I’m not saying we should just copy paste them but we really need to do the kind of work they have done.

Besides this we also have to begin to describe and define the road map for UAM – what do we need to do to enable safe, secure and sustainable drone services in cities and how does the process towards automation using UTM need to look and how should the regulation handle that during the whole process. Also, the thing EVERY drone operator are frustrated about is BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) and the regulations and permissions for that. We need to start testing how BVLOS could be solved technically in the urban environment where the UAM should be as automated as possible as soon as possible.

I am very grateful for being able to participate in the U-space Networks third workshop because I learned so much due to a very generous crowd. I strongly believe that when we meet next time this fall some of these things will have settled and we’ll be ready to take the next step – together.


–Petra Dalunde, Chief Operating Officer, Urban ICT Arena

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