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Europe Hits Key Milestones To Launch Commercial Drones And Air Taxis

Dawn Zoldi - Contributor

I’m a U.S.-based advanced technology author, consultant and advocate

The toughest problem to solve to enable widespread use of autonomous air taxis and drones beyond visual line of sight is the holistic integration of new and legacy air traffic systems. A European project dubbed Gulf of Finland (GOF) 2.0, kicked off on September 2, 2021 and tackled this head on, in the largest trials yet of a single sky air traffic management system.

The solution to harmonizing operations of manned aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and air taxis in shared urban low-altitude airspace: interconnectivity and data exchanges. The EU’s U-Space regulations codified how it should be done in a risk and performance-based framework, while the Single European Sky Aircraft Traffic Management Research Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership of more than 3,000 international experts, has provided real world research to back it up.

According to Thomas Neubauer, the architect of Europe’s unmanned traffic management (UTM) interface standard, “We are proving a wide range of end-to-end application cases in a fully automated manner, and integrating them into the existing regime of air traffic management systems and rules.” Neubauer is Vice President of Innovations at TEOCO and co-founder of Dimetor, creators of AirborneRF, an end-to-end connectivity management software based in Vienna, which connects drones with traffic control systems using cellular networks.

This second phase of the research and development to execute U-Space in realistic scenarios builds on the success of the 2019 GOF U-Space project, which validated use of a common network-centric UTM architecture. That project’s original 19 consortium members included global UTM technology leaders such as Austrian company Frequentis.

German start up, Volocopter, which is seeking to commercialize a vertical take off and landing air taxi, flew on the backbone of Frequentis’ communication and information solutions and proved out safe and efficient air taxi operations at the Helsinki international airport.

This original group, which also included Finnish and Estonian air navigation service providers, drone operators and manned pilots, successfully used a common UTM in 6 additional flight trials across Europe with use cases ranging from urban drone package deliveries, police operations, beyond visual line of sight forest inspections and maritime search and rescue.

The GOF program has been driven by an EU decision to make drones a strategic objective for industry, to bolster the economy. A previous study estimated that drones and autonomous air taxis will generate billions of new business opportunities in Europe including 10,000 new jobs across mobility, delivery, energy, public safety, agriculture and other sectors. The report also forecasted an annual economic impact exceeding 10 billion euros by 2035 and 15 billion euros by 2050.

Other estimates also support the idea of a drone-driven economic boom. A 2019 analysis of the German commercial drone market by the German Unmanned Aviation Association, a joint initiative of the German Aviation Association and the German Aerospace Industries Association, projected it would grow to 2.5 billion euros over the next 8 years.

In December 2020, Levitate Capital projected the European drone market would be worth $16 billion by 2030.

Given these estimates, it's not surprising that big players like Airbus and aerospace upstarts like China’s EHang, a Nasdaq listed manufacturer of autonomous aerial vehicles, have partnered in GOF 2.0.

Right out of the chute, EHang successfully flew its passenger-grade eVTOL EHang 216 for beyond visual line of sight transport (passengerless) from the Tartu Airport to the Estonian Aviation Museum. “What made this really special for EHang was that we accomplished the first ever eVTOL BVLOS flight in Europe,” according to Andreas Perotti, Chief Marketing Officer for Europe for EHang. He continued, “We experienced zero flaws, zero issues.”

“Equally important,” Perotti continued, “we proved that these disparate systems can work together and that regulatory requirements can actually be met today.”

As the clock ticks closer to the 2023 U-Space effective date, the goal is for regulators to have the safety information they need to permit safe, cost efficient autonomous and semi-autonomous drone and air taxi operations in all environments across Europe. According to Neubauer, “Safe airspace integration requires network connectivity. These trials are our final proving ground for reliable, scalable and compliant beyond visual line of sight and complex operations.”

Trials continue through October across Estonia, Finland, Poland and Austria, and later in Latvia, Sweden and Denmark throughout 2022.

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