“Who should manage urban airspace?” – CIVATAglobal webinar

By Philip Butterworth-Hayes*

It seems somehow strange that in most of the world the only responsibility that local authorities have for managing drone and urban air mobility (UAM) operations above their cities is to have responsibility for flights in the airspace up to 500 ft above the land they own. It is the role of national civil aviation administrations to ensure the safety of all aircraft operations (including drones and urban air taxis), setting the rules and regulations for operations and deciding on the risk assessment criteria required of operators.

“We need to consider whether there should be a framework in place for the civil aviation regulator to delegate the governance of airspace management to the local authority,” according Emma Warner-Reed, of UK law firm Davitt Jones Bould, one of the speakers at the recent CIVATAglobal webinar “Responsibilities, risks and opportunities,“ (https://www.civataglobal.org/civataglobal-events), “and local authorities should be part of the process of shaping national regulatory processes for drone use.” But do national aviation regulators have the capacity and the local knowledge to deal with the micro-management of Class G airspace operations, she asked? If they do not, they will need to delegate it. But this will have to be agreed.

As always in issues of UAS traffic management (UTM) and UAM, the answer to one question merely opens the door to a host of others. Should the basis of this delegated relationship be established city by city, nationally or internationally? What rights will private citizens have to ensure the use and enjoyment of their properties up to 500ft above their roof? Will this mean developing new sets of highways in the sky – which will soon become congested?

And most local authorities will want to do more than merely manage the UTM system in their UAM programmes – this work will most probably have to be done by contracted civil aviation industry companies anyway, as local authorities do not have the relevant expertise.

The cities of the European Union’s UAM Initiative Cities Community (UIC2) have very clear ideas on what their roles should be within the UAM eco-system  (See box: “The five areas where cities should set the UAM agenda) according to Vassilis Agouridas, Leader of the UAM Initiative, EU Smart Cities Marketplace (UIC2). For the community of UIC2 cities, UAM will need to fit into their overall future smart city transport planning strategies. “If we cannot provide an interface between the air and the ground what will be the benefit of UAM to citizens?” he asked. “UAM offers new possibilities but new responsibilities for local authorities.”

The aviation industry needs to take account of the language and priorities of the cities in developing UAM eco-systems. For cities, UAM can be defined as “very low altitude air traffic over populated areas at scale,” said Vassilis Agouridas, irrespective of whether the traffic is flying over urban or suburban areas. He agreed that with drones and air taxis flying lower in some cities that the top floors of the highest buildings the only way to manage this airspace is via some form of multi level governance – after all, if there are going to be complaints about this traffic it will be the local politicians who will have to field them.

According to the webinar chair Andrew Charlton, Director General of CIVATAglobal, cities are responsible for planning and managing all the horizontal transport modes – including mandating propulsion systems –  but the vertical transport mode will somehow have to be different.

One local authority in the UK, Coventry City council, is taking a lead by building a UAM vertiport this year and then looking at the real-world challenges and opportunities such a structure will mean for the local authority (https://www.unmannedairspace.info/latest-news-and-information/uk-to-build-urban-air-mobility-airport-in-coventry-by-year-end/).

According to Sunil Budhdeo, Transport Innovation Manager, Coventry City Council: “Part of the process of building the Coventry vertiport is to help us, the government and other local authorities understand what changes are required – what legislative changes and planning applications are required.” The structure will help the local authority understand what height drones and air taxis will fly at and what the impact will be of building a vertiport within a new distribution centre, or a housing estate – where a drone vertiport could be an integral part of the local authority’s planning policy of reducing road traffic deliveries.

“Each city has its own urban traffic control centre that manages highways and the road network. The vision for us is to develop an urban airport in conjunction with Civil Aviation Authority.”

*Philip Butterworth-Hayes is editor or Unmanned Airspace, Urban Air Mobility News and the Director of Strategy and Communications at CIVATAglobal

The five areas where cities should set the UAM agenda

In December 2020 The UAM Initiative Cities Community (UIC2 ) of the EU’s Smart Cities Marketplace – formerly known as EIP-SCC Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Initiative- launched its manifesto  which, while recognising the need for national and regional competent civil aviation authorities to lead the legal implementation and approval of urban flight operations, also requested that the role of cities and regions as one of the competent authorities in the governance of the urban airspace is explicitly acknowledged and referenced in the prospective U-Space legislative clauses of Member States. “This is an imperative in the context of multilevel governance of USpace and responsive decentralised policy implementation. In specific, the UIC2 members request that:

·       Cities/Regions have a deciding role for allowing the operation of UAM services of public interest (e.g. future public transport, postal-deliveries, emergency services) in alignment with the needs and preferences of their citizens.

·       Cities/Regions have a deciding role in establishing to what extent UAM/USpace operations can be conducted in their territories.

·       Cities/Regions have a deciding role where UAM/U-Space flight operations are permitted within their territories (e.g. geo-fencing, day- / night-time restrictions, noise and visual abatements).

·       Cities/Regions have a deciding role where take-off and landing sites are to be built.

·       Prosecution of infringements of the public use of the urban airspace over a city/regions remains a local task.



(Image: Marko Aliaksandr/Shutterstock)


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