In the future, U-Space must ensure the orderly handling of all unmanned and manned air traffic in the same airspace. But before that happens, a lot needs to be tested in practice. As part of the European AMU-LED project, various test flights will soon take place in the following three Dutch cities: Amsterdam, Enschede, and Rotterdam. Project coordinator Marta Tojal Castro of Royal NLR explains what will happen.
U-Space drone test flights
Drones can deliver packages, conduct inspections, transport emergency medical supplies, and even transport people. And all this in an urban area. That is the promise of Urban Air Mobility (UAM), freely translated urban air mobility. To make UAM possible, there is a need for highly automated air traffic control for drones. This is called unmanned traffic management (UTM), or in the European context, U-Space.
U-Space must ensure that drones that fly fully automatically or out of sight of the pilot (BVLOS) can do so safely. Only then will the above applications be possible. Public acceptance also plays a major role. Because what do people think of those drones flying overhead? Which applications do you see or do you not like? And what about noise and visual disturbance?
All these aspects come together in the Air Mobility Urban – Large Experimental Demonstrations (AMU-LED) project, an H2020 project of the European Commission. Soon it will finally be time for the various test flights and demonstrations in the Netherlands that are part of this project: in Amsterdam, Enschede, and Rotterdam, to be precise. NLR plays a leading role in technical coordination.
Amsterdam: public acceptance of UAM
First up is perhaps the most important topic on the agenda: the public acceptance of UAM. Because if the residents of a city don't like all those future flying drones for whatever reason, the applications will soon be over. For that reason, in early August in Amsterdam, there will be an investigation into how the public views the various drones and their applications.
To this end, a number of drone test flights will occur in Amsterdam between 1 and 5 August. First without an audience, above NLR's head office in the southwest of Amsterdam, then with an audience, above the Marineterrein in the center of the capital. Various scenarios are carried out, with (supposedly) a package-delivering drone, a Police drone carrying out surveillance, and a drone that urgently flies over a medical load.
Technically, the demonstration is exciting because, at some point, several drones (a Tarot 690 hexacopter and a simulated aircraft) will be flying in the same airspace. In addition, the flights take place in the controlled airspace of Schiphol, and there may be people walking around the site.
Tojal Castro: “All factors that have to be taken into account, and then the weather has to cooperate. It is very challenging for that reason.
To test the U-Space component ‘tactical conflict resolution', an imaginary drone carrying emergency medical supplies will approach the flight area during the test, coming from the OLVG in Amsterdam East. The U-Space system will take measures to avoid a conflict situation. To this end, the drone pilot on location will see a warning in his display and must give way to the approaching drone. A similar test is performed while one drone is flying on autopilot while another manually controlled drone is approaching. The system must then perform the intervention independently.
A focus group of twenty people of various ages, knowledge levels, and living situations is being formed. Part of the focus group will look at the system that controls the drones, while another part will only see the flight movements. The focus group is given questions before and after the demos. Not only concerning safety, privacy, noise, global pollution, and the desirability of certain applications. In this way, it should become clear whether and how the public's perception of UAM changes as people gain more insight into how it works.
“It's actually a shame that spectators and people in the focus group only get the tip of the iceberg,” says Tojal Castro. Behind the scenes, there is an enormous amount of work involved in this demonstration, in terms of paperwork, permits, cooperation, you name it. But you can't really tell from the flights themselves. Due to the complexity, we first conduct similar test flights above the NLR building, where no bystanders can reach.”
Enschede: Impact of UAM
During the second series of test flights in the Netherlands as part of AMU-LED, another issue will be on the agenda the following week: the social impact of UAM. How can drones be integrated into the work of, for example, the police or fire brigade? What are the possibilities, and how do they translate into the practice of care providers? A series of training flights above the training area of Space53 near Enschede is on the program.
As part of this demonstration, three scenarios are discussed, where different functions of U-Space are tested. This includes issuing clearances, strategically adjusting conflicting drone flights, and dealing with high-priority flights—such as in the case of a medical drone with an urgent shipment on board.
Some of the flights take place within the pilot's line of sight (VLOS), another part out of sight (BVLOS). 4G is used for communication with the drones. Given the proximity of Twente Airport, there will be radio contact with air traffic control. Mutual communication takes place in a decentralized manner. It will be tested whether U-Space services such as current airspace information, positions of other aircraft, and weather information via an IP network can be used by the operators involved.
The flights in Enschede – led by Space53 – are performed over controlled territory, so without the presence of the public.
“In these test flights, the focus is on what is technically possible, not so much on public acceptance,” said Tojal Castro.
Rotterdam: UAM feasibility
The third series of tests and demonstrations, to be performed in and around Rotterdam and the Rotterdam port area on August 16, concerns the feasibility of UAM. The main goal is to get an idea of what the overall UAM ecosystem could eventually look like. So, in addition to transporting goods using unmanned aircraft and inspection flights, there is also passenger transport. And that in collaboration with other airspace users, such as the trauma helicopter of the ANWB.
Passenger transport is even discussed at the demonstrations in Rotterdam: one of the use cases concerns the transport of people from a location in the port of Rotterdam to Rotterdam The Hague Airport with EHang's two-person drone taxi, EH216. For safety reasons and permits, there will be no people on board, and the entire route will not be flown (part of it is simulated), but it will be the first time that an electrically powered multirotor of this size has been used in the Dutch airspace.
The medical delivery drone also comes into play in Rotterdam. In this case, the Avy Aera, from the Medical Drone Service initiative, will fly in and out of the airport's CTR, out of sight of the pilot. In addition, a commercial delivery drone from Avy will be flying around the Maasvlakte. An incident is also simulated in which the fire brigade also flies. Tactical (in-flight) deconfliction is then demonstrated. The Altitude Angel UTM system, in combination with the AirHub Drone Operations Center, is used to guide the flights.
A temporary no-fly zone for other air traffic (TGB) will be established for safety reasons. The Province of South Holland has permitted EHang 216 to make incidental use of Heliport Pistoolhaven for the AMU-LED project. The Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) has yet to give final permission for the flight with the EH216, so it remains to be seen whether it can go ahead. This demonstration is coordinated by AirHub in collaboration with the Port of Rotterdam Authority.
A long way to go
Even though the test flights in Amsterdam, Enschede, and Rotterdam are an important prelude to automated air traffic control for drones, there is still a long way to go, thinks Tojal Castro.
“All demonstrations are still very complex. There is a lot involved in relatively simple flights.” In the future, it should all work much more simply,” Castro says. “But before we can actually use U-Space, it may be ten years later.
In particular, developing the underlying platforms still requires a gigantic effort. Systems for USSPs are well under development, but it will take a lot of work to get them up to the standard of manned air traffic control systems. That is something that everyone involved in the sector should realize; that we all have to work together to make U-Space a success, “explains Tojal Castro.
Exactly how big the first steps towards U-Space have become will become clear at the final meeting on August 23. Then NLR, together with Space53 and AirHub, will present the most important results of the demonstration flights in the Netherlands during a meeting in Rotterdam.
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