Over the last century, the development of the aviation industry has fundamentally changed the way we live, work, and travel. During this time, aviation has never ceased to innovate and in the last few years, new types of aircraft have emerged, including Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS or drones) and Urban Air Mobility (UAM) aircraft. The latter may be electric Vertical Take-off and Landing (eVTOL), electric Conventional Take-off and Landing (eCTOL), and some are Personal Air Vehicles (PAV). With the development of these new aircraft types, aviation is once again taking a significant step forward.
People have always dreamed of using air travel to improve transport in and around cities. UAM is the realisation of that dream, enabled by advances in technology that among other things reduce the noise and size of aircraft. UAM has the potential to revolutionise the way people and goods move in and around cities by enabling point-to-point flights, by-passing ground congestion and shortening journey times.
The term UAM refers to on-demand, highly automated, passenger or cargo-carrying air transport services in urban and sub-urban environments, where aviation is highly regulated today. The UAM industry vision involves an ecosystem of new vehicle designs, system technologies, airspace management constructs, operational procedures and shared services that together enable an innovative and more integrated transport network as safe as that of today.
There is a solid business case for improved commute times and accelerated transport of goods across cities. The challenge is to offer these in a sustainable way and electric air vehicles (eVTOL, eCTOL) and new types of operation can meet this need. Growth of UAS operations and the development of eVTOLs are bringing new applications, new business models, and new concepts and operations, that will cross all airspaces and that the aviation community will have to integrate with current operations.
A large number of players, led by aerospace, automotive, and technology companies, are already investing billions of dollars working on UAM solutions and eVTOL technologies to enable runway-independent operations, with very high degrees of automation, up to and including fully autonomous aircraft. In this context, various studies and most operators envisage that in a few years, a significant number of simultaneous operations around metropolitan areas and airports at altitudes up to 5000 feet and speeds of up to 150 knots. Outwardly similar to a helicopter, eVTOL aircraft are somewhere between commercial airplanes and remotely controlled UAS, configured to typically carry cargo or 1-4 passengers on short trips (e.g. less than 100 km) into and out of urban areas.
The safe integration of these aircraft and operations into the airspace creates a challenge in terms of complexity and capacity limitations. There are an increasing number of R&D projects and programmes around the world working towards addressing different aspects of this challenge, some of which are already flying aerial prototypes or full-scale eVTOL demonstrators looking at having initial UAM commercial services deployed in the next 3-5 years. At same time, private and public firms, companies, and government agencies are pouring billions of dollars of investments into eVTOL and broader UAM.
In the short-to-medium term, UAS/eVTOL aircraft will share the airspace with manned aircraft, relying more on data-link than voice communications as eVTOLs transition to autonomous operations. They will operate in airspace adjacent to commercial manned aviation (e.g. airports), and in airspace where several classes of user – military, police, and emergency helicopters, UAS and general aviation (GA) – already operate. A safe and equitable integration of current and future operations is essential in these airspaces where traffic density and ground risk are high.
These airspaces will be managed by Unmanned Traffic Management, known as “U-space” in the European Union (EU), and by traditional Air Traffic Management (ATM) where safety requires it. Innovative ATM/U-space services and the development of smart, automated, interoperable, and sustainable airspace and traffic management solutions will be key enablers for achieving the high level of airspace integration required while meeting the requirements of “priority aviation” such as manned security or emergency services. It follows, therefore, that the most critical success factor for UAM operations will be the ability to identify solutions that allow UAS, UAM/eVTOL and all the other airspace users (unmanned and manned) to operate safely, securely, sustainably and efficiently in a controlled and fully integrated airspace, without undue impact on operations currently managed by ATM.
As this important and growing domain evolves, a new operational concept, regulations and standards will be necessary to incorporate the needs of existing and emerging airspace users and these will require being underpinned by existing and new technologies. The whole environment will also need to be interoperable and safely integrate with manned aviation and ATM.
In this framework, U-space has become a priority for the aviation industry as a whole, not only because integrating smaller drones and larger UAM operations into the current surveillance systems has become a challenge from a safety perspective, but also because it is an enabler for new services and business opportunities. The industry believes that U-space could bring opportunities to develop new digital services and have a positive impact on cybersecurity, traffic operations and the sharing of information, while securing the highest levels of safety.
Opening the sky to these new classes of airspace user is also a political and economic imperative. With the adoption of the European Union (EU) U-space regulatory package in April 2021, Europe is now on the fast track to implementing drone ecosystems throughout the continent. These regulations are an important step towards creating the well-functioning, trusted and safe enabling environment that we need to develop a competitive EU drone services market. The European UAM market is projected to be the fastest growing one in the period 2023-2030 and several EU countries such as Germany, Italy,Spain and France are investing heavily in the development and procurement of U-space services and advanced eVTOL systems for commercial operations. It is hoped to start the deployment of some early UAM services around 2023-2025, enabling smarter, more efficient, and sustainable mobility, with clear added value for achieving Europe’s decarbonisation, digitalisation and resilience ambitions.
This challenge can only be achieved through an evolutionary development process ensuring parallel definition and deployment of appropriate advanced and interoperable U-space infrastructure, technologies, and services that fit with expected types of operation and levels of demand. To support this, a balanced consortium of the most innovative research arms of the ATM, UAS and UAM industries, led by EUROCONTROL Experimental Centre, launched CORUS-XUAM (Concept of Operations for euRopean U-space Services – eXtension for Urban Air Mobility) at the end of 2020. CORUS-XUAM is a demonstration project undertaken within the framework of the EU/SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU) Horizon 2020 programme, and will further extend the SESAR U-space ConOps defined by the previous CORUS project to enable the safe and efficient integration of UAM operations. It addresses several validation objectives:
- That the CORUS-XUAM ConOps and its associated advanced U-space services be a sufficient basis for the development of smart, automated, interoperable, and sustainable traffic management solutions that allow UAS, UAM/eVTOL and all other airspace users (manned and unmanned) to safely, securely, sustainably and efficiently operate in a controlled and fully integrated airspace while ensuring an effective interface with ATC;
- That operational scenarios that are currently considered challenging be possible (safely and sustainably) thanks to the advanced CORUS-XUAM U-space services in combination with advanced UAS/UAM technologies;
- That there be no issues blocking the development and definition of an adequate legal and regulatory framework to support the safe integration of UAS/UAM operations with manned aviation.
The core of the CORUS-XUAM project will be the execution in 2022 of the six challenging demonstration campaigns in Belgium, France, Germany and the UK, Italy, Spain, and Sweden that will:
- focus on different types of mission such as passenger transport, delivery, emergency response and surveillance;
- demonstrate integrated operations of both unmanned and manned aircraft;
- consider the required level of coordination between ATC and U-space including interaction with air traffic controllers and pilots;
- combine flights by eVTOLs with other traffic and operations in the CTRs of some major airports managed by ATM;
- demonstrate vertiport procedures, separation, and required data services.
Stakeholder outreach is an important aspect of CORUS-XUAM, and it is essential that the outcomes of the project be as widely known as possible. Several major workshops and communication/dissemination activities have been programmed for during the life of the CORUS-XUAM project. The consortium held a first large workshop on U-space/UAM operational requirements at the end of September 2021, and a second workshop will be organised in February 2022 with the focus on the consolidated U-space Concept of Operations. A final dissemination event will take place in December 2022.
In addition to these demonstration activities, EUROCONTROL, through its management of CORUS-XUAM, is leading the transversal coordination of 17 SESAR projects related to U-space/UAM. The aim is to deliver valuable insights that will enable the EC, EASA, SJU and EUROCONTROL to develop and maintain the U-space research baseline (CONOPS, requirements, link to the Master Plan) to accelerate a consistent deployment of U-space/UAM services at a European level.
EUROCONTROL’s management of CORUS-XUAM is part of the portfolio of activities performed by the Agency’s Drone unit which, in collaboration with its institutional and industrial stakeholders, provides technical advice on U-space matters and promotes the harmonisation of U-space in Europe. In partnership with the European Commission, DG-Move, EASA and the SJU, the Drone unit facilitates the sharing of lessons learnt through the European Network of U-space Demonstrators that supports European businesses in transitioning from U-space demonstrations to implementations. EUROCONTROL monitors and reports the status of U-space demonstration projects and the implementation status of U-space services on annual basis in the context of this network.
For more information please refer to: https://corus-xuam.eu
(Image: Volocopter Test Pilot (Damian Hischier) Flying Volocopter’s eVTOL Aircraft. © Volocopter)