Are we prepared for Urban Air Mobility to be a reality?
With one foot in industry and other in research, it feels like talks of UAM are much louder in the commercial sector compared to research sector. Look at the image below for the distribution of research. After scouting through scientific databases, I see that mainstream studies, almost 70%, belong to engineering and technology (in yellow). Research in transportation, computer science, telecommunication, and automation & control are low (in orange), yet it is logical that this knowledge could be growing within companies. But knowledge is extremely low in some of the most significant research areas to make UAM a reality in the right way. These include environmental studies, business economics, geography, public administration, energy, operations research, sociology and urban studies (in red).
No doubt that research in Urban Air Mobility (UAM) has radically taken off in past 3 years, and the stats explain that technology is still immature. But with companies of aviation and transport industry claiming to emerge with technologies and on-going talks of implementing UAM in major cities around the world within the next few years, it is crucial that we investigate all areas to enable us to build supporting infrastructures, energy solutions, planning cityscapes, address possible sustainability and regulatory issues right away. Research patterns are usually a reflection of real world scenarios. So, irrespective of sectors we need enough knowledge for not just boisterous talks and impulses, but for suffcient preparedness and planning grounded in reality for implementation of disruptive transportation. At IBG, we think it is already time for this and are urging salient research in all vital research areas to build and implement UAM constructively.
Autonomous or heteronomous?
From self-driven cars to unmanned flights, transportation is transitioning towards autonomy. But from a moral stance- the word “autonomous” means capable of self-governance with a sense of morality. Like children, who, as they get older, become ethically and morally independent and can relate to abstracts. Contrarily, technology isn’t there yet, and neither do we want it to reach that state of complete autonomy to make its own decisions. These so-called “autonomous” technologies learn and act in accordance with approved programming by human decision-makers, and we want technology to be governed by regulations and ensure that they are safe and reliable for long-term human and ecological use. Therefore, technologies should be called “heteronomous”. Perhaps this could hamper typical ‘technology paranoia’ based sci-fi entertainment ideas, but it would create a much-needed common understanding of what technology must look like in our societies.
Need for truly ‘Multimodal’ hubs
As an aviation infrastructure company trying to involve in multimodal or intermodal transport hubs, we quickly realize how these hubs lack “multiple modes” of transport. They usually entail different types of conventional and emerging land transportation while logistics for freight transport usually involves land and marine modes of transport, and less so aviation. UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and EU’s Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans today seem to address and facilitate road mobility.
Why so? Because that is our current reality.
Land transport is a major mode of transport, especially in cities. And cargo shipments usually happen by trucks, trains, and ships. But at least on a city-level, drones complementing these mature modes of transport is not a distant scenario. Test flights are being conducted all around the world today and if anything implies that it will become a part of our transport systems soon. Making way for this is increasingly becoming a necessity and we need truly ‘multimodal’ platforms. This would enable coming together with other modes of transport so everyone can investigate the potential of these technologies and facilitate it constructively and synergistically, with the aim to reduce overall impacts of transport systems.
Where do we start for Advanced Air Mobility?
There is a popular opinion in industry that the starting point for AAM is for regulatory bodies to take the responsibility of developing regulations. This popular belief also takes on the tone of regulations being a hindrance. However, when we actually look at implementing AAM, at least in a European context, we see that it is possible to work with existing regulations for aviation and transportation. While there is some truth to the popular belief, that regulators and AAM actors must come together to further develop the regulations to make it AAM specific, yet, that is not what we would call a starting point.
The starting point should entail bringing light to questions such as- Where should we fly? How should we fly? How to approve these operations? How can this be implemented on a large scale? How to implement AAM without compromising a sustainable perspective in a societal context? How to complement existing ways in societies? And so much more. This is best started with a societal perspective in mind. While drone and aviation industry actors are actively involved, there is a lack of collaboration with the public and city planners. They are significant actors who can show us the right ways to plan and implement AAM that can benefit society. Public opinion should be at the forefront of developing systems that address public’s concerns. City planners come with knowledge in city planning that needs to be closely worked with when implementing new transport systems. Therefore, we need to ensure that we don’t just work with a triple helix approach but move towards a quadruple helix approach.
Fictional or Functional?
Drones are often seen from a futuristic perspective and in a fictional light although the concept has been around for decades now. Today technological advancements have brought us into a time where we are far ahead of this fiction pacing into a reality when drones will become a part of our transport landscapes. Test flights have been conducted across the globe, and many companies have even provided dates for test flights in the nearest couple years. These test flights are also a sneak peek into the near future and proof of evolution of our transport systems and what we need to be prepared for. The pandemic era has already made certain the need for faster and autonomous delivery systems. We have seen the use of drones for humanitarian aids such as essentials delivery of medicines and vaccines, and food delivery, for those with lesser access or need for faster delivery times.
The demand for home delivery has also significantly increased during this pandemic. As faster and fossil-free complements to conventional transport systems, drones will have the possibility to be a sustainable option for first and last mile delivery. By interjecting logistics, it will provide an opportunity for drones to make delivery faster, convenient, efficient, and cost effective with time. In Sweden, Katla Aero has been one of the first few to make test flights for their electric VTOL drones. This has provided the first steps needed for feasibility and impact studies. Katla continues to develop drones for the Corus-XUAM project that IBG conducts. Test flights will be demonstrated between Linköping and Norrköping soon next year, and we will be making rapid advances into connecting businesses and customers through revolutionized delivery system.
A paradigm shift is happening in the transport systems of societies
A paradigm shift is happening in the transport systems of societies. During this decade, Sweden’s will expand to include fossil-fuel-free drone use carrying people and goods above cities and rural areas. This change is rapidly unfolding and requires significant planning.
For many years now, drones have been used for inspection and monitoring services globally. Sweden is now doing the same. These services were easy to implement because they did not require permits for flight routes. Today, between fifty and one hundred municipalities use drones in their day-to-day operations. As drone technologies and municipal regulations develop, data capture and processing will continue to advance.
Next, infrastructure for drone transport of people and goods needs to be established. Future transport will be fossil-fuel-free and independent of heavy terrestrial investments. The fast-developing extensive use of drones requires the creation of safe and effective air traffic regulations. An infrastructure that needs to take existing systems, as well as new forms of communication, and take offs and landings, into account. Not to mention the creation of effective billing and service provisions, and the establishment of effective airspace corridors for unmanned flight vehicles.
We know that the billions of dollars currently being invested in drone technology will result in the development of different types of drones for different needs. We also know that we can build the technical communication infrastructure required to ensure communication with drones. To accomplish this, municipal planning organizations must develop new processes and procedures. This planning responsibility is currently developing, and collaboration between all is required. Who will take responsibility for equipping the municipality and the region to drive development? Regardless, in the near future the lower airspace must considered and regulated and detailed plans must be written.
The airspace and the regulations that govern them will be delimited both horizontally and vertically. Vertical delimitation means that it is possible, for example, to have several detailed plans in different layers that apply one above the other, but which are clearly delimited from each other vertically. For example, when planning underground traffic, such as road, railway or tram tunnels. Or, as in future planning of the lower airspace for the fossil-fuel-free and efficient drone transports of the future. The future is soon here and community building and the establishment of infrastructure takes time to plan and implement. It is time to start investigating and preparing.
The Way Ahead
To establish drone transport on a larger scale, a build-up of knowledge is required. Planning processes, and the development of transport plans, must include how the lower airspace can be delimited and used for drones. Air corridors need to be demarcated and illustrated. This includes risk and impact assessments. Here, different experts with different competencies must meet and collaborate. Aviation and drone skills must be included in the planning work. New types of infrastructure need to be established, like Vertiports – take-off and landing sites. In addition, digital communication infrastructure is required for controlling and monitoring the airspace. The drone transport system also needs to be connected to, and integrated with, other transport systems.
Planning processes and digital tools for simulation and visualization of the airspace need to be developed. Legal conditions and regulations regarding airspace need to be incorporated.
The infrastructure of the future will not only be fossil-fuel-free but will also have a digital building process. In addition, there will be increased mobility and competitiveness, as well as the benefit of new jobs.
The future will soon be here – it is high time to start planning!