Drones have a variety of applications in cities: urban surveillance and security, emergency and traffic management, infrastructure maintenance, street mapping and event recording, among others. But in the era of smart cities, the biggest new development, which is still in the testing phase, will be their implementation to deliver light parcels and movement of people.
Madrid is already a pioneer in Europe in the testing the home delivery of parcels with drones, thanks to the implementation of a pilot project in the district of Villaverde. In this district in the south of the city, the City Council has set up a sandbox or safe testing environment for drones around La Navea municipal entrepreneurship and innovation centre. The scope of action will cover the industrial estate in which the centre is located, where both established companies in the technology and automotive sectors, as well as start ups will be able to test their projects.
However, before the widespread implementation of courier drones becomes a reality, regulations will have to be adapted, rooftops will have to be prepared, a system for managing urban drone traffic will have to be set up and delivery routes that do not conflict with other aircraft will have to be established. These routes will have to be free of obstacles, comply with the maximum height allowed and avoid flying over sensitive areas.
The regulations on drone flight, which changed on 31 December of last year, allow three categories of flight: open, specific and certified. Of these, the only one that is exempt from express authorisation by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is the first, which covers most recreational operation and involves less risk, while the delivery of parcels would fall under the specific category.
Fitting into smart cities
At the European level, and despite some lag behind the United States, U-Space is an ambitious project to make the European airspace a complex ecosystem in which all types of aircraft coexist in harmony. To do this, segregated spaces will be created for different safety levels and a high level of digitalisation and automation of functions will be necessary. Improved communications between these devices will be crucial for the safety of drone air traffic. A joint initiative by Telefónica, Correos and Ericsson, promoted by Red.es, a public entity driving digitalisation and innovation, will test positioning improvements using data transfer with 5G, in view of the expected increase in the number of drones flying over our cities in the coming years.
The United Kingdom plans to have Air One, its first urban airport dedicated to delivery drones and air taxis and located in the city of Coventry, operational by the end of 2021. This initiative is being developed by Urban Air Port, Hyundai and the British Government itself, who present the project as the world’s smallest airport.
Australia has already tested messenger drones over populated areas, although time being, the government only allows these devices to fly over three neighbourhoods of Canberra with the condition that they must avoid passing over the main streets and above people. The service only includes the delivery of products from local businesses during the daytime from Monday to Saturday, according to ABC.
In the United States, last year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorised logistics distribution using drones for companies such as the online retail giant Amazon, the global courier company UPS and the supermarket chain Walmart. Although the service is still in the testing phase, light parcel distribution logistics is closer to lowering costs, shortening delivery times and reducing the carbon footprint of deliveries with this solution.
The previous year, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore began a series of pilot tests as part of its strategy to develop an unmanned urban air system to contribute to the safety, efficiency and sustainability of air delivery in megacities like Singapore. In 2019, the aeronautical company Airbus successfully tested its Skyways drone package delivery system with preset “shore-to-ship” routes, the first of its kind in a maritime setting.
In countries such as South Africa and Tanzania, the transport of medicines or blood with drones is already a reality. This was preceded in 2015 by the Droneport project by Foster+Partners, designed to be implemented in the Central African Republic and Rwanda. It consists of the design of a safe space for landing drones in densely populated areas that are difficult to access due to poor connections or geographical barriers. The site, conceived as a mixed-use space including health services, would function as yet another point in a network of drone routes capable of delivering urgent and critical supplies.
Air taxis, one step closer
Electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft have already been tested to transport people. These could function as air taxis, with one or two people on board; as an aerial metro, serving as a shuttle; and as air ambulances, to transport both material and medical personnel.
Volocopter is a well-established German company that has EASA approval to design eVTOLs and expects to open its first commercial air taxi routes within the next two years. But it’s not the only one. Hyundai, leveraging its muscle as a large-scale electric vehicle manufacturer, is working on its own model of an air taxi and last year announced its partnership with the mobility-sharing giant Uber to implement an air taxi service on a global scale, within this decade. The service would initially be piloted but would later become autonomous.
In Spain, ENAIRE, the national air navigation manager, will participate in two European funding projects, CORUS-XUAM AND AMU-LED, in order to carry out the first air taxi demonstrations in Spain in 2022, specifically in Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela.
Spain also has experience in the development of technology and related infrastructure. Tecnalia, a science and technology park in Guipúzcoa, has developed the first Spanish air taxi for urban transport. Ferrovial has just presented a proposal to the Ministry of Industry and Ecological Transition to create a network of more than 20 vertical airports or vertiports in Spain that are 100% sustainable for air taxi use. Big Data will be used to determine the optimal locations for these vertiports and where there is potential demand.
Currently and apart from the regulatory obstacles, the main technological barrier to overcome with respect to these autonomous electric air taxis is the duration of the batteries, which conditions variables such as distance and weight to be transported. They can also have an environmental and noise impact, and open a debate on safety.