Urban air mobility makes a place for itself in Barcelona Mobile Various tests have been carried out in Spain to transport people and medical equipment

It will be the same day that the Mobile World Congress (MWC) starts, on Monday, February 26, when Telefónica Tech announces its alliance with EHang, one of the best-known companies in the production of aerial electric vehicles. A vertical takeoff and landing eVTOL will be presented for the transportation of people and the possibility of going without a pilot. «The union with EHang, a leading manufacturer of these devices, aims to promote this ecosystem, validate technology and test in different scenarios and locations. 5G mobile networks are interesting for these developments because they can guarantee the reliability of communications thanks to their low latency and high data transmission capacity. Connectivity is a critical part, especially in passenger transportation. During the flight, information such as location, device speed or sensor data needs to be shared in real time. Additionally, if an emergency occurs, the system must be able to be controlled and operated remotely and this is the other point where connectivity is critical. Furthermore, with the data from the cameras and sensors, mapping or inspections, etc. can be made,” says Kallitsa Georgiou, head of Innovation and New Businesses in IoT at Telefónica Tech.

The truth is that EHang has the first commercial license to carry out flights with people since the end of 2023. With this decision, China has wanted to get ahead in the new global market for urban air mobility. For its part, the United Arab Emirates has announced that it wants to have commercial flights by 2026 and in the United States, both companies such as Boeing and the air safety authority are preparing so that air taxis for transporting people can begin to be common in the skies. of cities in 2028.

Flight tests have been done all over the world, including Spain. Already at the end of 2022, the Technological Institute of Galicia (ITG) carried out several test flights with an EHang model in Castro de Rei (Lugo), within the framework of the European AMU-LED project (the project seeks to advance the safe integration of drones in urban environments). The tested device can operate completely autonomously and transport up to 250 kg of weight, that is, two people, over a distance of up to 35 km. A few weeks ago this same entity announced the creation of a Cluster to promote these developments together with the public company Ineco. «Manned air taxis with drivers will arrive first, although people transport will be the last to appear. What is called urban air mobility also involves the transport of goods and the use of drones for traffic surveillance or pollutant detection services, etc., if sensors are installed on them. All of these vehicles are being tested to validate the technology and its safety and are also being used in a non-urban context, for example, by electrical companies to monitor energy transportation lines,” says Analía López Fidalgo, director of non-urban aerial systems. crews of the ITG / National Technological Center.

The deployment schedule of unmanned aerial vehicles in cities is not very clear; Regulations and testing and development go hand in hand and the industry and manufacturers are preparing for the gradual start of urban air mobility, although things are going slower than is sometimes announced. This is what Dirk Hoke, CEO of Volocopter, says in a statement to “Politico”: “To be honest, I cannot guarantee that we will carry out certified operations during the Olympic Games.” And one of the most recent announcements was precisely that during the Olympic Games being held this year in the French capital, there would already be a service to transport people by air. Now, and according to this same medium, we will have to wait for the Rome Jubilee in 2025 to see them fly. «The manufacturer that is furthest along in the race to obtain certification from the EU Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is Volocopter… EASA (which has received requests to approve five devices) has only certified one electric aircraft, the Pipistrel Velis Electro, which is not capable of taking off and landing vertically, an essential feature for operating in urban areas.

Merchandise transports

Experts in urban air mobility affirm that the transport of packages with drones is going to be a reality in a short time, but is there already a parcel service of this type operating? The truth is that even though the first announcements made by Amazon date back to 2013, things are not going as fast as predicted. In 2022, the Walmart store chain made 6,000 deliveries in the US and Amazon made a few hundred of them. Now, The Guardian publishes, the company has announced its intention to start its air parcel services in the United Kingdom and Italy during 2024. They hope to deliver no less than “500 million packages by drones each year by the end of the decade.” In the UK, as in the US, the group will initially be required to use observers and ensure its drones do not travel beyond their line of sight, although it hopes this will change before long,” says the half british And the thing is that, today, there are two flight possibilities that will allow a greater or lesser deployment of delivery services as long as the regulations allow it. «The so-called visual line or VLOS and the beyond visual line or BVLOS (the latter, flights beyond the direct line of sight). In the former, the pilot has to have visual contact with the drones, which limits package delivery to perimeters of 1 km. The beyond visual line can reach distances of between 5 and 10 km to the extent of the autonomy of the drones, which on average can be in 40 minutes. In the US there are already licenses for this type of beyond visual line drone flights,” says Kallitsa Georgiou. In Spain, the Madrid city council announced a couple of weeks ago its intention to approve an ordinance that regulates air mobility in 2025. «In general, the regulations in Europe are at a point where this type of services is not yet allowed, but the airspace begins to open; The geographical areas and use cases are being specified based on the types of flight (with autopilot, VLOS…). No packages will reach the end user, but it is likely that we will see arrivals at consolidation points such as vertiports. There is an erroneous awareness that everything that moves in a city is parcels, but there is also more and more movement of material for catering, hygiene… Last year we did a pilot in which we moved medical material between two hospitals. “You can take urgent things,” explains Ramón García, general director of the Spanish Logistics Center. In this center they work on four projects, including this one between hospitals to bring medical supplies. «In another previous project, the Priority Drone, drone transport for long-distance goods was studied, for emergencies and even between islands. Situations in which there is a lot of development potential. We have also worked on generating management tools and helping to train drone pilots for indoor use, where these devices are already being used regularly,” he says.

What is left pending?

In addition to infrastructure such as vertiports, there remains regulation and development. In Europe, since January 2023, there has been a regulation that says that any drone “has to plan the flight and connect with future local service providers who will act as air traffic controllers.” One more step to reach the objective that the Commission has set of having express parcel delivery services and air taxis by 2030. «In addition, the airspace needs to be organized, that is, there is a traffic control system. Routes must be specified and someone must establish flight priorities, for example, if an emergency medical transport has to pass. Everything is being finalized and certified, but in the next ten years we will see how air mobility impacts the way we get around. The changes will come gradually, because at first it will be expensive, for executives and those who can pay for it, but it becomes democratized,” concludes Analía López.

Is it necessary to move through the air?

Drone air traffic control engineers ITG

Has the change that air mobility will bring with it been well thought out? Will there be noise problems? Who will pay for the installation of the vertiports? Where are they? For example, according to the online media “Politico”: The French Environmental Authority measured the noise level of an air taxi in flight at 65 decibels and “concluded that it did not maintain the promised silence. However, the CEO of Volocopter responded that the noise level is so low that two people talking cannot hear it.

May López, development director at Companies for Sustainable Mobility, believes that now is when we have to start asking ourselves these questions, “now that we are in the design phases, we have to see how it will impact on an ecological level. It makes no sense to replace transport options that are already valid, for example, taking an air taxi to go from Madrid to Zaragoza when there are already trains; nor lose sight of sustainability. First, due to the raw materials that will be needed to build these vehicles, but also due to the duration of the batteries or the energy demand. That is, we must analyze the entire life cycle of these proposals and see in which cases these solutions are more optimal than the current ones. If it is to carry emergency kits it is phenomenal, if it is to replace the train we should question it,” she says.