The European Commission (EC) has recently announced the launch of a series of Digital Sky Demonstrator (DSD) projects that will contribute to the objectives set out in its Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy through accelerating the market uptake of U-space and urban air mobility (UAM) services. These DSDs will also contribute to the “Action plan on synergies between civil, defence and space industries” which was adopted in February 2020, and which includes an “EU Drone Technologies Flagship” project.
Opening the sky to these new airspace users is a political and economic imperative for the EU.
The Drone Industry: key for the EU’s economic future
Developing services for uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS, more commonly: drones) supported by a competitive industry can also strongly support Europe’s twin transition to a green and digital economy, and contribute to post-COVID-19 recovery and to the future resilience of the EU economy. From daily commuting and goods delivery to the proper functioning of global supply chains and the development of a wide spectrum of new applications and services, drones are an enabler of our economic and social life.
The European Green Deal, the EU’s new growth strategy, calls for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and the development of digital transformation. In this context, the whole transport system should be made smart and sustainable, with the use of electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft and digital services. In this framework, the EU needs to ensure the safe, efficient, and sustainable development of drone operations, addressing other related concerns such as safety, security, privacy, social acceptance, and environmental protection, while simultaneously ensuring a sustainable economic environment for the growth of the European drone industry.
Innovative U-space services and the development of smart, automated, interoperable, and sustainable traffic management solutions will be key enablers for achieving the necessary high level of integration with Air Traffic Management (ATM).
Indeed, the European ATM Master Plan states that these challenging objectives can only be achieved through an evolutionary development process that ensures the timely deployment and certification of appropriate, advanced, and interoperable air and ground infrastructure, technology, and traffic management capabilities, and that provides an adequate level of services that fit with expected types of operation and levels of demand.
Following the adoption of a first EU regulatory framework for UAS (Delegated Regulation 2019/945 and Implementing Regulation 2019/947) and U-space (Implementing Regulation 2021/664), it is important to foster the uptake of these innovative operations in Europe.
15 locations in Italy, Spain and France to test and mature U-Space solutions
Building on the above-mentioned regulations, several EU countries have already started to invest in the development, procurement, and certification of ad-hoc U-space systems to enable and properly manage the expected types of commercial drone operation.
The U-ELCOME project intends to foster a fully scalable market uptake of U1 and U2 U-space services through a set of tests and demonstrations in various operational environments and European locations.
To do so, U-ELCOME, under the coordination of the EUROCONTROL Innovation Hub, will develop, test, and demonstrate early U1 and U2 U-space solutions across 15 locations distributed in Spain, Italy, and France.
Combining digital and physical infrastructure capabilities, U-ELCOME will set up, deploy, and demonstrate the following SESAR solutions up to Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 8:
• U-space U1 — foundation services: these will identify drones and operators, and inform operators about known restricted areas. With the deployment of U1, more drone operations are enabled, especially in areas where the density of manned traffic is low.
The U-space foundation services include e-registration, e-identification and geo-awareness.
• U-space U2 — initial services: the main purpose of these is to support the safe management of “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) operations and a first level of interface and connection with ATM/ATC and manned aviation. With the deployment of U2, the range of operations at low levels will increase, including some operations in controlled airspace. Drone flights will no longer be considered on a case-by-case basis, and some BVLOS operations will become routine. At least the following initial U-space services will be included: tactical geo-fencing, emergency management, strategic deconfliction, weather information, tracking, flight planning management, monitoring, traffic information, drone aeronautical information management, and a procedural interface with ATC.
The U-space system: a real interface with the ATM system
The U-ELCOME project will build on the outcomes of the previous European projects – from research, through industrialisation, to implementation; at the same time the U-ELCOME project complies with Regulation 2021/664 on a regulatory framework for U-space, and related amended Regulations 2017-373 and 923/2012. U-ELCOME relies on real U-space systems, which are in operation or will be deployed by ENAIRE, ENAV, ASLOGIC, ITG, D-Flight and Thales during the execution of the project.
The U-ELCOME demonstrations will interface the U-space set of services with existing ATM systems, and to each other. The U-space capabilities and U1 and U2 services of the pre-operational U-space ecosystems will be demonstrated in several live use cases in various operational environments that represent the most typical missions for both business and civil authority use such as medical and goods deliveries, Inspection flights, aerial work in urban and sub-urban environments, in controlled and uncontrolled airspace.
The project, working in close cooperation with EASA and other international and national authorities and organisations will also contribute to the consolidation of standardisation and regulatory requirements of the proposed U-space services to further accelerate the deployment of relevant U1 and U2 services and U-space-based operations.
This project has received funding from European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency (CINEA) under grant agreement No. 101079171.