The future of flight – urban air mobility

Urban air mobility
Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) ©U.S. Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joseph M. Buliavac

Government Europa Quarterly speaks to Yves Morier about the complications of modern day aviation – from unmanned aircraft to on-demand urban air mobility – and the future of our skies.

As airspace becomes increasingly populated with unmanned aircraft, the safety of air transport is seeing renewed focus as modern day complications arise. This issue is set to become more diversified if we are to see adoption of on-demand urban air mobility as a new method for intercity transportation. As a result, a greater emphasis on legislation and regulation is being made at a European level in order to ensure the safety of European airspace, and beyond.

The role of regulatory agencies such as the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has become more important, ensuring that highly innovative technologies are ushered into practice safely. Established in 2002, EASA’s role is multi-faceted – their mission is to:

  • Ensure that there is a high level of safety for EU citizens universally across Europe;
  • Ensure that high levels of environmental protection are universal;
  • Provide regulatory and certification processes for member states;
  • Facilitate the internal aviation single market, whilst creating a level playing field; and
  • Work alongside international aviation organisations and regulators.

Government Europa Quarterly spoke to Yves Morier, principal advisor to the Flight Standards Director at the EASA about the complications in aviation that we are yet to address, as well as the future of urban air mobility.

An increasing popularity for unmanned aircrafts can pose complications for other methods of air transportation, particularly those transporting passengers. How does EASA anticipate that collisions can be mitigated?

In 2015, the European Commission published a proposal for the revision of EASA’s Basic Regulation 216/2008, covering the integral elements in efforts to establish European safety rules for drones. As a result, unmanned aircraft below 150kg are to be regulated at European level, whilst a maximum height above ground level (AGL) was also established, standing at 120 metres – identical to the one existing in Ireland, Malta, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK, whilst other areas had varying limitations. Yves Morier said: “The risk of collision is one that we take very seriously.”

EASA have developed a system which operates on two key aspects of unmanned aircraft: their location systems (for example GPS), and their built-in memory. As a result, Morier added: “We can ask the system to not enter restricted, or prohibited, zones, or to at least warn the user that they are at risk – that they are coming close. Then the pilot is able to mitigate collisions.”

The above mitigation method relies on a system of zones which are put in place by member states, where access is limited or prohibited. However, Morier furthered: “The competence of the pilot will play a role, so that they can comprehend the complexity of the airspace. A further system that we are working on is what we call detect and avoid systems, which are systems that could allow drones to avoid aircraft.” Despite this, there is still some reliance on unmanned aircraft not flying above 120 metres.

All this and more is included in the Opinion 01/2018 available on our website since 6 February. This opinion is the first proposed regulation at a European Level on drones. Generally speaking, an opinion is a recommendation to the Commission for regulations.

How will EASA be involved in the future of urban air mobility?

As a regulator, the role of EASA within this advanced future of urban air mobility will be to provide certification for the machines that will be used in new modes of air transport. The responsibility for aircraft certification was transferred to EASA in 2002 when airworthiness and continuing airworthiness regulations were transferred to the EU.

Since then, the scope of EU aviation safety regulations has been extended to aircraft operation (2008) and aircrew licensing, and finally to air traffic management and Air Traffic Controllers licensing (2009). Although this draft Basic Regulation has not yet been adopted, a political agreement was reached in December 2017, which will ensure the regulation of small drones at the individual member state level.

Morier said: “We have to certify the machines, and of course, the challenges are numerous – vertical take-off and landing (VTOL), as well as the transportation of passengers.” It is highly likely that these machines will make use of up-and-coming technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) in order to direct movement. However, he added that EASA will also be responsible in drafting the rules for:

  • Pilots licensing;
  • Operations; and
  • Maintenance.

“Preparing rules and providing further guidance, material and documents in particular related to safety promotion is certainly part of our work and our job.”

What kind of legislation, and/or regulation, are required to facilitate urban air mobility at a European level?

“What we expect is that especially as some of the machines are relatively heavy, that they will apply existing EU rules – Part 21 provides the administrative requirements for aircraft certification, as well as containing an outline on how to define the certification basis – the technical requirements of the aircraft. For aircraft which take-off and land vertically, a certification specification is already in place (CS-23 amendment 5) that may be used as a starting basis – a CS is a set of legal conditions concerned with structure, stability and maneuverability, performance, and system requirements of urban air mobility, amongst other stipulations. “It’s quite clear that for the machines we are talking about such requirements will be completed by Special Conditions. Special Conditions are developed when the CS does not cover the new technologies incorporated in the aircraft.”

“Certainly, electrical VTOL machines can be expected. They present quite a big interest because they could reduce traffic jams.” As a result, worldwide interest in urban air mobility is being generated, among efforts to transition towards smarter city operations. Morier added that to date, there are around 45 projects of electrically powered VTOL aircraft. One specific example is that of Vahana, financed by Airbus and its subsidiary A3, which flew in January.

However, Morier articulated one very new technology in aviation — that of autonomy. By 2030, it is anticipated that large commercial cargo aeroplanes will become another unmanned aircraft. “But, there will be a need for the public to accept the notion of large airplanes carrying passengers with no pilot on board. and that may come much later” Yet, it is becoming increasingly likely that by 2030 at least one pilot could be replaced in those aircraft transporting passengers, with companies such as Airbus investing in AI practices.

Elsewhere in the aviation industry, there have been some serious attempts to develop supersonic aircraft, however they seem to materialise slowly, but the dream of supersonic flight is still there. Morier added: “Another thing that also come to fruition is 3D printing, which would bring some significant revolutions to the ways which we produce and design aircraft. Last but not least, virtual reality is being used more and more for the training of personnel and design of aircraft and equipment.” EASA is also supporting the development of AI technologies in the aviation sector.

What are EASA’s priorities throughout the period 2018-2030?

“There is an immediate priority to establish rules for small drones, but next to that would be to contribute and develop the requirements for U-Space, which is an unmanned aircraft traffic management service.” Alongside supporting developments for the future of aviation, it is also a priority of EASA to revisit the Germanwing accident, as well as addressing the safety issues of today which are not directly linked to development and innovation. More information on our priorities are found in the European Plan for Aviation Safety (EPAS) which is available on our website.

Even if 2017 was a good year in terms of aviation safety, we must not become complacent. As previously mentioned, EASA hopes that following the agreement reached in December, the Basic regulation will be adopted before the end of the year, which will allow to regulate drones at European level thus creating a market for this industry.

Yves Morier
Principal Advisor to the Flight Standards Director
European Aviation Safety Agency


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