By Philip Butterworth-Hayes
Public demonstrations of the positive benefits of electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOLs) and drones by comparing the noise of eVTOLs with helicopters and replacing firework displays with pet-friendly light shows were just two proposals from a December 2022 “Navigating the opportunities and obstacles in UAM” expert workshop organised by the EU-funded Flying Forward 2020 project, along with the AiRMOUR and AURORA consortia.
More than 40 UAM experts attended the event, which was designed to identify and explore the key UAM challenges; to gather input from selected target audiences on how to solve these challenges; and bring together the selected target audiences to exchange knowledge and ideas for future explorations and to expand the network
Workshop conclusions were divided into three areas: the regulatory framework; public acceptance; and technical maturity. These were the main conclusions:
The role of the regulatory framework
The main issue identified in this breakout session is ‘How to integrate the highly regulated and rule-based ecosystem of manned aviation and the untransparent and unpredictable Artificial Intelligence (AI) ecosystem?’ One of the main questions raised was ‘Who can we hold responsible and who do we trust?’
- A risk- based approach is necessary, boxing in the use cases. The AI Liability Act also helps by making clear who carries what risk.
- Statistics could be used to decide when the use of AI is considered safe enough.
- For the integration of AI in UAM, it could be interesting to look at the cross-over from AI in manned aviation and how this became certified.
- When the airspace becomes more crowded in the future, a lot of data needs to be processed as required by the U-Space Regulation. AI and Machine Learning (ML), when proven reliable, might lead to useful ways to handle all this information.
- The research field of AI in UAM is primarily a technological approach, but this should be done in parallel with the regulatory developments. Currently the research into UAM is very broad, it would help to create focus and to scale capacity and effort of larger research institutes to cover all perspectives.
- To help move the entire industry, it is important to work towards a framework for deciding and prioritizing what’s important and what research is most beneficial.
- Regulatory certainty is essential for investments by the market, especially when it comes to criteria and requirements for certification. This should be a core focus. Without knowing what will be required for the certified category, technical developments will be slowed down because it will be too big a risk to invest time and money, particularly towards actual implementation of service operations.
- Funding programs for research and development are important to help bridge the gap between the regulation and the market, until the regulation has developed further
Demonstrations/living labs demonstrate use cases that benefit society, showcase what is happening with the technological advancements so people can see for themselves and form their own opinion on this.
- Local municipalities will know the needs of their citizens and should encourage use cases that address these.
- Drone industry/stakeholders should directly address fears of society of this new technology. Therefore, a responsibility lies with them.
- Be careful of social washing – EMS applications are being promoted whilst we know that drones will also be used for transporting food to those who can afford it.
- The potential for social inequality in drone operations should be addressed.
- In Brussels the local police used drones for crowd surveillance of masks and social distancing and had a speaker to tell people to comply, also people have seen drones being used for defence in the current political crisis in Europe. This creates negative public perception of drones. Therefore, positive application of uses of drones and their dissemination by the media to the public is important.
- Follow up on citizen participation – start by telling people how the results will be used from their surveys, workshops etc.
- Drone industry / stakeholders need to take on board the comments and suggestions made by the public. Ensure that people are confident that the new technology is safe and supervised by competent bodies. The first step could be to help them make UAM fully transparent for citizens. Trust starts with transparency. An idea would be to have public discussions with the local society to plan landing spots for civil service drones.
- Customer facing application of drones so citizens can experience the results. For example light shows are becoming more popular as they are less noisy than fireworks and therefore less disturbing for people’s pets. This creates a positive attitude by the general public for the application of drones.
- Providing safe landing sites of drones, making use of existing infrastructure. For example, first have a helicopter land on a helipad and then have a passenger eVTOL land on a helipad so people can see a direct comparative benefit, such as reduced noise.
Maturity should be demonstrated via real-life tests to show the drones in operation and to show that obstacles can be detected for example.
- It is important that software systems advance as well. If you want to have a lot of drones flying in the same airspace, they need an integrated software system.
- AI is needed to learn from different missions to optimize the whole system. The technology is in place, but we are lacking the interface to a kind of u-space structure that allows a regulatory overview of everything that can be produced with AI.
- One of the main questions is ‘How to integrate the drone and its goal with the systems in place of individual organisations?’ A common joint approach is needed that answers the question of which technology is needed.
- The technology of manned aviation is prevailing, but is this the right angle? How to decide which technology fits best? Technology is mature enough, but it needs to be more human-centric so that the technology isn’t leading.
- It is a challenge to balance technology with the regulation since the regulations often move slower than the technology.
- Standards are necessary! Project activities should lead to insights for creating these standards.
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