Looking for medium density in UAM operations

U-space is a set of new services relying on a high level of digitalisation and automation of functions and specific procedures designed to support safe, efficient and secure access to airspace for large numbers of drones. UAM refers to an ecosystem that enables on-demand, highly automated, passenger or cargo-carrying air transport services with particular reference to the urban, suburban and interurban environments.

In support of this initiative, in 2017 the SESAR Joint Undertaking drafted the U-space blueprint, a vision of how to make U-space operationally possible. The blueprint proposes the implementation of 4 sets of services (U1, U2, U3 and U4) to support the EU aviation strategy and regulatory framework on drones. Since then, a great quantity of entities within Europe work together in 19 research and demonstration projects until 2020. Among them, it should be noted the first ever full concept of operations for U-space, CORUS.

U-space timeline, SESAR JU

These projects defined and demonstrated U1 and U2 services, as well as some early U3 services. On April 23, the Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2021/664 of 22 April 2021 on a regulatory framework for U-Space was published. This regulation represents a great advance for the development of drones. It is a step towards the widespread use of drones as one more element of airspace and, consequently, the take-off of this technology.

It is now time to start working on the definition, design and development of the most advanced U-space services (U3/U4), which will also enable UAM missions in high-density and high-complexity areas. By now, there are still more than ten ongoing projects working for the creation of a truly European market for drone services and aircraft.

Development of U-space services at scale, European ATM Master Plan Drone roadmap

One of those project is AMU-LED, that aims to demonstrate the safe integration of different types of manned and unmanned aircraft operations in urban environments to realise increasingly sustainable smart cities. AMU-LED ConOps targets the transitional medium term, when the first air-taxi operations start to take place within a relatively mature U-space environment with most U1 and U2 services deployed.

It is expected that by 2027, the U3 will unlock new and enhanced applications and mission types in high density and high complexity areas. This is where the most significant growth of drone operations is expected to occur, especially in urban areas, with the initiation of new types of operations, such as air urban mobility. By 2035, it is expected the need for U4 services will arise during the roll-out of U3.

In the SESAR European Drones Outlook Study of 2016, growth in the number of drones in activity is forecasted for each of defence, government & commercial missions and leisure. Overall, in terms of order of magnitude,

  • military defence assets are expected to increase from high hundreds to multiple thousands,
  • leisure units from close to 1 million to approximately 7 million and,
  • finally, government and commercial units from multiple thousands to hundreds of thousands.

Leisure unit growth is expected to mature in the near term with defence, government and commercial growth continuing out through 2050. By 2050, most of the demand will be at lower levels of airspace or below 150 metres.

As conclusion, by 2035, our skies will be at least ten times busier with a major part of flying hours performed by drones operating beyond line of sight (BVLOS) in all environments using U-space to deliver a large variety of services. Achieving the integration of drones will be an iterative process: as more services are deployed and operations are enabled, drones will be progressively integrated into all classes of airspace until reaching a point where full integration is achieved.

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