We are playing a key function in the huge transformation of cities, with an undertaking that is guided by the starring role of people, mobility and technologies. It truly is a paradigm shift.
Driving around the streets of an urban environment requires knowing how to drive a vehicle, and while driving, we have to be mindful of the rules of the road, signals, traffic lights, intersections, pedestrians and any unexpected events that may occur. Standards create a common environment of understanding for all drivers, regardless of the type of vehicle they are in. All of this mitigates risks, not only for drivers, but for everyone else and for the elements that make up the urban ecosystem.
UAM will be in the spotlight in coming years, and we have a chance to take advantage of our existing knowledge and really make it a solution to the problem of mobility in cities.
Something similar happens in the air. Far from what some believe, aircraft flights are regulated by very strict regulations. They also have predefined routes and corridors, just like the streets of a city. This makes air travel among the safest methods of transport.
In both cases, there are two common elements. On the one hand is the traffic structure (routes, corridors, streets, waypoints, etc.), which makes traffic flows predictable. On the other hand, there is regulation through procedures, which mitigates risks and ensures that every stakeholder has an understanding of the operating rules.
For a few years now, a new type of passenger and cargo transport system, primarily (but not exclusively) for city settings, has been in the works. It is called Urban Air Mobility (UAM). It consists of using electrically-powered vertical take-off and landing aircraft that are able to travel automatically (even autonomously) or be piloted remotely. In general, this type of aircraft is designed for small loads and no more than two passengers that are travelling between different areas of the same city, although this concept also includes communication between cities and rural environments, or between cities and the intermodal transport centres located in their suburbs.
For years now, many companies around the world have been racing to capture this still-emerging market, which could be worth around 100 billion euros in the next few years. It’s not just a question of developing the aircraft that will serve this purpose, but also of innovating in the technologies needed to operate, design and build the city skyports and the many economic activities that will spring up around them.
UAM will require a structured urban airspace with routes, corridors and limits to define where the air vehicles can go and what their movement vectors will be. It will also be necessary to develop specific regulations that account for all the contingencies involved with this type of transport. And, of course, it will be necessary to have a single authority to oversee the system’s operation and adapt it as needed. In this regard, let’s not forget that urban airspace will have many operators (companies and individuals) and, therefore, will be a highly dynamic environment where the status of the skyports, corridors and routes will change quickly.
There are several basics that have to be addressed in any environment in which a system for managing urban air mobility is to be implemented, and which will pose a challenge prior to its implementation:
- Design of urban airspace and procedures. Far from freeing up space so that each aircraft can fly wherever it wants, which is as undesirable as it is inconvenient, there must be an agency that is tasked with designing the structure of urban airspace (air routes, corridors and their limits) and the relevant procedures. The structures will also identify those points in space where an aircraft will enter or leave the adjacent airspace (e.g., controlled airspace near airports).
- Creation of an information exchange system. It will be a critical service that will allow all stakeholders, both inside and outside the regulated space, to interact, share information and make decisions using a uniform set of data. It is an environment in which all the information on the airspace and flights will be uploaded and collected in real time. The information comes from, and is used by, air authorities, airspace managers, skyport operators, pilots, etc.
From there, an operational environment will have to be put in place that guarantees the following services:
- Compliance management: Pre-processing of flight requests and validity checks of authorisations, as well as pre-flight assistance if requested.
- Flight authorisations: Clearances for registered aircraft and pilots to fly inside urban airspace. Authorisations will also be required for aircraft entering the controlled perimeter.
- Air traffic management: Coordination of aircraft movements within the urban airspace, and separation between them to ensure the integrity of operations.
- Dynamic airspace management: Flexible real-time management of routes, air corridors and their limits.
On top of all this, a new element arriving on the scene will have to be considered: the option to have automatic, or even autonomous, aircraft. This means that some of the processes before, during and after the flight (or all of them) will be managed by an autonomous system. This should not pose a problem, since the aircraft that are being designed for urban air mobility can actually be regarded as flying computers.
It is likely that each city, region or country will have a different approach to creating its own urban space regulation and control bodies, depending on its laws, policies, strategies, and resources. But there must be a series of common principles that have to be respected by all stakeholders, as is already the case with airspace regulation.
The environmental impact will be another issue that needs resolving, especially with regard to the noise generated by aerial vehicles. Even though this type of aircraft will not run on internal combustion engines, rotor friction creates noise that 38% of the population has expressed concerns about, according to a recent study by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
We should also note one aspect that will be essential to both the implementation and development of UAM: the public’s trust and acceptance. For the time being, according to the aforementioned study, 83% of the respondents were open to implementing UAM in their cities. Forty-nine percent would even be willing to get on an air taxi.
There is still a long way to go before all these steps, and a few more, are completed and we can realise the dream of personal and autonomous air transport in our metropolitan environments. In a sector such as aviation, where we rightly expect extensive and detailed regulations that provide for very high safety standards, we must also keep in mind that implementing UAM requires proper regulations and, above all, taking every step with the resolve required of a change as important as the one we have before us.