Urban Air Mobility: is the future of mobility be in the air?
While the dream of the flying car has often been reserved for science fiction, a very practical and real future is gradually emerging for urban air mobility. How can Urban Air Mobility (UAM) be made a sustainable solution for tomorrow? Where do our cities stand on this? Here are some insights.
With exponential demographic and economic growth, Europe’s major metropolitan areas are facing many challenges. In terms of transport, the congestion and pollution this generates is now forcing them to devise more sustainable mobility solutions. After buses, bicycles, trams, scooters, cable cars… now is there room for urban air transport?
This is what the “UAM” initiative of the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) intends to support, an initiative aiming to bring together cities, citizens, companies, research professionals and other stakeholders, in order to boost practical studies for the implementation of initial experiments from 2019.
Coordinated at European level by Airbus, the “UAM” initiative is based above all on a city-centred approach, with an upcoming and diverse set of showcase projects in cities and regions. The aim: to develop concrete solutions for urban air mobility (intra- and interurban mobility), with a real impact in terms of territorial issues, by means of a collaborative approach between the various stakeholders in a region.
The Pink City as a pioneer of air mobility
Toulouse Métropole, the Aeronautics and Space capital, already has a very rich ecosystem in terms of the mobility of the future. It is truly a pioneering area in Europe in terms of developing the third dimension of urban mobility. Closely involved in the “UAM” initiative and in collaboration with a set of partners, it has established an initial experiment roadmap, which gives an idea of the scope of future applications:
- Remote sensing: the use of drones for environmental applications or urban services (traffic management, air quality, infrastructure monitoring, etc.) to meet supervisory needs,
- The transport of equipment for emergency and rapid-response services (health, medical, security),
- Urban logistics: to experiment with supporting specific products and services for which drone technology could supplement the existing value chain over the first/last kilometre.
By 2025-2030, we will also be able to see real flying taxis land over traffic jams. An example of this is the Toulouse-based company EVA, which is planning to market an autonomous electric vehicle within the next few years that is capable of taking off and landing in a parking space.
And a myriad of other projects are flourishing, including Vahana, CityAirbus or the project Pop.Up Next developed since 2017 by aeronautics giant Airbus, car manufacturer Audi and Italdesign, a subsidiary of the Volkswagen group.
Solving the challenge of social acceptability
Are we ready to accept packages delivered by drones or for ourselves to be transported by a drone from one place to another? And would we agree to be flown over daily by tens – or even hundreds – of drones? One of the major challenges in the development of this new market is based above all on how acceptable it is for people. Rather than focusing questions on technology and drones, our thought process will be geared more towards people’s needs and the potential services we can make available to them.
Manufacturers should therefore establish close links with local authorities, who will have a key role to play in terms of communication and supporting the change. In order to surface, UAM must deliver on its promise of sustainable, safe and secure transport. It must be able to prove to people that it does not represent a nuisance but a means of making mobility more fluid and thus improving everyone’s daily life. All major European cities will therefore represent an essential lever in the development of these solutions, with a duty to involve people at the very core of their decision-making.
Digital U-space at the heart of the initiative
The issue of air traffic safety and fluidity is a matter for Air Traffic Management (ATM) and in France regulation is managed by the Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGAC – Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile). With regard to urban air mobility, in Europe we talk about Digital U-space to define all the infrastructures that will make it possible to manage drone transport.
It is conceivable that the Digital U-space will be a highly automated system. Drones will represent very fragmented and large-scale traffic, and therefore impossible to manage without automation. Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence will thus make it possible to manage different constraints in terms of density, conflict detection and resolution, flight plan understanding, etc.
Very large volumes of data will be exchanged, which is already raising the issue of collaborative governance and increased cooperation between all the parties involved. The successful emergence of sustainable urban air mobility will therefore depend on the commitment of cities and areas to guarantee compliance with safety rules and offer new mobility opportunities that will improve our quality of life.