Urban Air Mobility 101
Road congestion and crowding, driven by rapid urbanization, are making transport by ground bound vehicles increasingly difficult in urban environments. To combat these issues, several initiatives have introduced serious efforts to introduce a third (vertical) dimension to moving goods and people in urban environments.
Unmanned vehicles are a major part of so-called Smart City initiatives which aim to utilize digital assets to create sustainable urban environments centred around maximum efficiency and (in the best-case scenario) zero waste. Within these initiatives drones provide the opportunity to create efficient and sustainable urban transportation systems which will irrevocably transform how we move in big cities.
The Role of Drones in Urban Air Mobility
The role of drones in urban air mobility (UAM) is twofold: 1) to transport goods; and 2) to move people. Smart Cities initiatives envision drones as autonomous vehicles transporting goods from one hub to another, as well as from hubs to consumers. Transport of goods can be for the purpose of posting e-commerce products or for the purpose of on-demand food and drink deliveries. Looking beyond commercial applications, the goods transported can also have medical purposes like emergency blood samples, vaccinations or organ transplants.
Meanwhile, people can be transported for leisure, logistics, but also as part of medical or emergency recovery purposes (in the same way that helicopters are used today in emergencies in cities). However, it is important to bear in mind that while there are significant opportunities that drones present in terms of UAM, there are also important hurdles and challenges (cons) to bear in mind.
The Disruptive Potential of Drones in Urban Environments
The disruptive power of delivery and passenger drones is the first step in the radical reshaping of both the aviation industry and the way we move in urban environments. Passenger drones alone will drastically cut commuting times in major cities. Meanwhile, delivery drones will facilitate immediate food and goods deliveries without a human in the loop or traffic delays. This will fundamentally change the way goods are transported within cities.
In order to fully offer UAM services, drones will need to be fully integrated into airspace and able to operate drones on a fully autonomous level. These are still some time away both in technological and in regulatory terms. However, once available autonomous passenger and delivery drones will cut the carbon costs of transport massively. This will chiefly make a difference in urgent situations. Large metropoles will acquire a sustainable alternative to overcrowded streets and automate their delivery systems for maximum efficiency.
Meanwhile, the current hype around both delivery and passenger drones has spurred a lot of innovation and attracted a lot of publicity. This has the opportunity to open a lot of doors for the commercial drone industry, as large players like DHL, Amazon and Uber are able to invest heavily both in the R&D and in lobbying for UAM friendly regulation and government support.
“The disruptive power of delivery and passenger drones is the first step in the radical reshaping of both the aviation industry and the way we move in urban environments.”
Millie Radovic, Market Analyst at DRONEII
The Challenges Ahead
While UAM will be an important aspect of urban transport and the role of drones in this is certain, there are still major hurdles for passenger and delivery drones to overcome. The three key hurdles, all of which are interrelated, are: public acceptance, regulations, and infrastructure.
Despite major achievements in the commercial drone industry, most people still do not trust the idea of drones flying in urban environments. In addition to fears of safety are the concerns over data protection and privacy. Responsible regulation of drone operation and managing public expectations will be key in the coming years. Drone deliveries may very well prove to be the cheaper option for takeout and Amazon Prime (provided they are deployed on a mass scale). However, passenger drones are, like their traditional counterparts (helicopters), not cheap. While some companies like Uber are working to democratize the urban airspace even their rides were still estimated to come to just over $200 per ride from Manhattan to JFK Airport, for example. Others are not looking to revolutionise the airspace, but to merely undercut helicopter manufacturers.
In order to secure social acceptance, responsible regulations will be key. As if legislating commercial drones was already not complicated enough, doing so for drones that will carry commercial goods and people in urban environments is even more difficult. , there are some key steps that need to be taken for both. These include regulating flying at night, flying beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS), and flying over people and buildings. As of yet in most countries that have commercial drone legislation, these are conditions which require special permissions for flight. In order to establish automated and efficient delivery systems, operators will need to be able to acquire these permits quickly through a streamlined digital system. The same goes for passenger drones, except that there is a whole added element of carrying humans which requires extra certification procedures including Platform Type Certification, Product Organization Approval (POA) and Airworthiness Certification.
Finally, to regulate drones responsibly there’ll need to be an unmanned traffic management (UTM) in place which can efficiently integrate the airspace. As of yet, there is no officially legislated UTM system in place in any city. Software companies are beginning to deliver solutions to the problem of tracking drones and areas where flight is permitted. However, a comprehensive and mandatory registration system alongside a comprehensive software will need to be in place in order to coordinate the flight of masses of drones to fly in urban areas at the same time. Here, it is not only the regulation and the UTM software that will make up the infrastructure, but also physical infrastructures like distribution hubs and landing pads, and other key components in smart city infrastructures, especially 5G connectivity.
Coming full circle, this is where the conversation about drones in urban environments leads into other branches of urban air mobility. Without delving into those subjects further, drones will clearly play a major role in the future of sustainable cities, connecting transportation hubs, people, public bodies, businesses, and consumers. In order for that to happen, there is still major work ahead for companies and governments spearheading urban air mobility initiatives. The following articles in our series will delve further into the technical and logistical aspects of this topic to bring you the latest industry updates.
DRONEII’s token social scientist, Millie has a BA in International Relations from King’s College London and an MSc from the University of Oxford. Earlier, she amongst other things researched Science & Tech policy for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Brussels. At DRONEII she particularly looks at drones and international development & global health projects.