Medical emergencies, parcel deliveries, and passenger transport as we know them could be upended by Urban Air Mobility in the near future. Still, many questions today remain open with regards to acceptance, city planning, or regulation. Supported by AllDots, Outsight International, and Skyroads, EIT Urban Mobility explored these dimensions of the UAM debate in a study leveraging the knowledge of more than 50 experts across Europe.
Vehicle development and technological improvements of drones as well as electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOLs) have led to substantial innovations since the mid-2000s, including technologies such as distributed electric propulsion system, interchangeable or fixed battery system, lightweighting, etc.
Recently, mainly three eVTOL aircraft concepts have emerged as particularly promising: multirotor/ wingless design (eg. Airbus, Volocopter), lift & cruise (eg. Kittyhawk, Aurora), and tilt wing/ rotor (eg. Lilium, Joby). While technological innovations make urban air mobility possible, there remain important enablers to consider for an uptake beyond controlled environments.
UAM acceptance needs to be differentiated by use cases
Public acceptance is a cornerstone of the global UAM debate. In Europe, the first large scale citizen survey conducted by the AiRMOUR project delivers precious insights on public attitudes towards the use of delivery drones and eVTOLs for emergency medical services. More than 80% of the surveyed participants think that medical use cases are most acceptable when about the transport of urgent medical products or the transport of passengers for medical emergencies.
The impact of UAM on noise pollution is an important component of public acceptance, ranked third in the survey after privacy and safety concerns. These findings are similar to the EASA ‘s study on social acceptance of UAM in Europe which concluded that noise is the second main concern after safety. To ensure a uniform high level of environmental protection, and to address the noise-related concerns expressed by EU citizens, EASA is developing dedicated noise certification standards that take into account the specific characteristics of these products.
The expert insights collected in the EIT Urban Mobility study align with one of the conclusions from the AiRMOUR survey that medical services are the most important use cases for drones and eVTOLs today. Nevertheless, almost 2/3 of the surveyed experts consider transport of packages in industrial spaces (B2B environments) as an important use case for logistics drones, and a similar share of the respondents see an important role for eVTOLs as airport shuttles in the future.
Cities keen on UAM need to already anticipate the infrastructure and safety needs
For cities, the possible future development of UAM implies anticipating digital and physical infrastructure requirements to ensure well-functioning operations, with a focus on safety. In fact, 43% of the surveyed experts expect UAM to demonstrate safety levels similar to those for commercial aviation. A third of them expect this level to be even higher than aviation today. The newly started CITYAM project, which focuses among other things on land use issues for UAM, will provide further insights on this crucial dimension of any future UAM ecosystems.
Efficient traffic management will be instrumental to ensure the necessary coordination that a scaling of UAM would mean for cities. 67% of the experts surveyed think that UAM air traffic must be centrally regulated, while 31% of the respondents think that regulation of take-off and landing or segregation of airspaces during the flight will be relevant and is a necessary area to be regulated. Companies such as Skyroads are already developing air traffic management solutions to provide safe, deconflicted routings to optimise airspace use above cities.
The still-emerging UAM regulatory framework
The development of a UAM-related regulatory framework is still in its early phase. However, some regulatory building blocks have already been addressed in the EU by the European Commission and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA):
- In November 2022, the European Commission adopted the European Drone Strategy 2.0.
- The implementation of the ‘U-space' in January 2023, a European system unique in the world to manage drone traffic safely, will lay the ground for increased operations
- The SUMP Practitioner Briefing on UAM, developed by the Urban-Air-Mobility Initiative Cities Community (UIC2), of the EU's Smart Cities Marketplace.
Examples of UAM integration in our existing mobility systems are still rare. A relevant upcoming demonstration will happen during the 2024 Paris Olympics, where RATP works together with Airbus and Groupe ADP to manage the integration of UAM operations in the existing public transport and mobility network. This use case will surely provide further guidance as to the most appropriate regulatory framework to ensure integrated and safe UAM operations.
Want to learn more about accessibility and the ±15-Minute City? Access the full study in the file section below.
Published on 14 February 2023. Our thought leadership programme analyses hot topics in urban mobility. Should you be interested in getting involved in the co-creation and co-dissemination of high-quality reports on specific mobility trends, kindly contact us.