Urban Air Mobility (UAM) is shaking up transport in cities and regions. UAM was once on the fringe of discussions around the future of transport, however, it is now hitting the mainstream, and is rapidly transforming passenger and freight transit.
So, what do we need to know, and how can cities prepare for UAM?
From 4-6 October, Urban Mobility Days heads to Seville, Spain, where- amongst other topics- UAM will be on the programme, exploring cutting edge developments and what is yet to come.
Ahead of Urban Mobility Days, POLIS Network’s Manon Coyne, Project Manager on a range of UAM related projects, provides key insights for policymakers and practitioners:
What is UAM? How would you summarise it for those who do not know?
UAM designates all airborne transport services above populated areas, operated at low altitude – in contrast with current airline services. Several aspects of these services are included in different definitions of UAM:
- Aerial vehicles are electric, small, and easily manoeuvrable, taking off and landing vertically.
- Piloting can be manual but is most often remote and automated.
- Service operation relies on a high level of digitalisation and automation of various support services called the U-Space.
- UAM services are well integrated in surface transportation systems.
- Flights’ purposes are sometimes part of the definition of UAM – emergency transport, airborne package delivery, nature/crowds/construction sites surveillance, access to isolated areas, etc.
What are- or will be- the primary use cases for UAM?
According to several surveys and a workshop conducted within EU-funded projects, the medical use case seems to be the least controversial one. For this reason, it might be the easiest one to implement and the first one to become reality, though several obstacles remain.
In a research presentation at the Amsterdam Drone Week in March 2023, about 45% of attending experts judged the medical use case as most appropriate for early UAM adoption. The second use case identified as most appropriate was the airport connections service.
It is important to note that, Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) only differs from UAM in its scale of operations, as AAM covers regional and intraregional connections as well. Some definitions of UAM cover AAM as well.
We often hear about UAM in conversations about logistics. How is it shaking up the freight sector?
UAM approaches the delivery of packages mostly from the medical perspective and access to isolated areas. In theory, it should not provide services competing with current freight services.
However, the efficiency of UAM operations and the comparatively small public space needed on curb side (for example) might lead to a progressive modal shift, if UAM services prove secure and safe enough. But I have not been involved in activities with the freight sector on this topic and have therefore probably a partial perspective only on this aspect.
It is a topic which is only just really becoming part of the urban mobility lexicon, what are the main points of progress/ development you have seen over the last few years?
In recent years, many research activities have developed services and frameworks to ensure a safe operation of large numbers of aerial vehicles simultaneously overpopulated areas. The USEPE project created a concept of operation for a drone separation method called D2-C2 in 2021-2022, for example.
In parallel, several investigations are assessing the acceptance of this new type of transport mode. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) took part in this work, launching the first European-wide study on the topic in 2021. EU-funded projects AiRMOUR and AURORA also greatly contributed to evaluate the extent to which residents would use or even just accept the existence of UAM services in their environment.
Further activities to build the right framework for UAM operations focused on the required infrastructure, both physical, with pilots testing the set up and operation of vertiports in different locations, and digital, with investigations on data flows and communication challenges and opportunities. These initiatives include research on the integration of UAM services with other airborne services and the related infrastructure and framework (air traffic control, airport operations, navigation and sky governance). Since recently, they also cover the digital integration with existing urban mobility systems and policies. The EU-funded project PAV conducted comparisons between autonomous drones and trucks or shuttles operations, for example.
Finally, regulatory challenges, governance questions, and certification or skills discussions have developed tremendously in the last years. From the end of 2021, the U-space regulation clarified to a certain degree competence areas and responsibilities for the establishment of a framework enabling UAM operations. But more research is needed to implement the guidance provided in this regulation, and adaptation will be needed in local contexts. Personnel capacities also determine the ability of authorities to ensure their responsibilities and will be decisive in local or regional competence organisations. To this end, several education programmes are currently being funded and developed, such as the EU-funded UAM School for cities training programme, or the AiRMOUR masterclasses.
Several UAM projects recently united for an 'urban air mobility for all' workshop, to create an open debate about this emerging industry. Like many new modes of transportation, UAM also faces difficulties around user acceptance. Why do you feel this is, and how can we tackle this?
The 'urban air mobility for all' workshop brought up stakeholders from various perspectives, who usually do not interact with one another. Participants were categorised in three groups: industry (including airport operators, for example), authorities – mostly regional ones, and citizens representing different groups of potential passengers with various profiles.
From the discussions held, it emerged that the level of information from these groups was very heterogeneous, and this has consequences on the approach to UAM. Citizens are dominantly reluctant to see airborne vehicles in their skies, they are afraid of noise annoyances, and of breaches of their privacy with video or sound recording reaching their private sphere. On the other hand, industry and aviation experts have data about noise levels and can anticipate operations and their concrete impacts on everyday life, but they also have a specific interest in seeing UAM services become truth. With all of that, authorities have the duty to identify public needs and fulfil them with innovations, without damaging the quality of life and satisfaction of inhabitants and affected citizens.
The Urban Mobility Days 2023 will bring together many key stakeholders in the discussions around UAM, including cities, the industry and civil society groups. Why is conversation important right now?
More interaction would enable citizens to adopt more informed opinions, and better align their needs with awareness of what is possible in terms of services. But it is always tricky to get to grips with true and understandable information when interests depend on this information. This is where public governance will be mostly needed – but which public governance, and how?
How can/ should cities prepare for UAM? What advice would you give them?
My first advice would be for cities to develop their knowledge on the topic. Several local authorities are already looking into these innovations. Exchange and connection to the right channels is the first step to take. It is difficult and requires resources but is of primary importance in order to keep up with what is coming, especially if in time it can reduce the environmental print of mobility in cities.
[Note: The Urban-Air-Mobility Initiative Cities Community (UIC2) within the EU's Smart Cities Marketplace was established in October 2017 and is a city-centric (and regions) community that brings the voice of European cities and regions in the emerging sector of urban air mobility. It fosters collaboration across disciplines and sectors pertinent to UAM with the aim to jointly shape the future of UAM services.]
The second piece of advice would be to engage with citizens and define the needs that can be covered by UAM services with them. This is a second step to be taken when knowledge exists and can be shared in an understandable manner.
Third and finally it is to conduct a good and comprehensive cost-benefit analysis. Awareness is needed of the necessary investments for safe and useful operations. This can be used for comparison with other available options, and to avoid mistakes which can have heavy consequences on the future of transportation systems and local environments.
For more information on the Urban Mobility Days, view the programme here: urbanmobilitydays (europa.eu)
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