Urban drone trials underway to give cities ‘highways in the sky’

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A traffic management project showing how drones can be safely used in urban environments across the UK is being carried out by Cranfield University researchers.

The project could demonstrate the feasibility of using drones for delivery services, surveillance, or even unmanned transport in cities and other high-population areas.

The AMU-LED project is carrying out co-ordination and testing on a system designed to manage airspace traffic and check safety, interoperability and feasibility.

The air traffic management framework is known as U-space and is designed to ensure safe and efficient access to airspace for a large number of drones, based on high levels of digitalisation and automation.

The researchers said that future city-dwellers could expect to see a variety of drones in the airspace above where they live designed for various different purposes.

A key step towards this is performing flight demonstrations with various scenarios, situations and use cases in urban environments.

In a series of demos, the project will use large electrical Vertical Take-off and Landing (eVTOL) platforms for passenger and cargo transport, combined with smaller Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) performing delivery of goods and medical supplies, surveillance or support for emergency services.

Test flights are taking place in the UK, Netherlands and Spain, with the range of locations enabling the project to test a variety of aspects, especially assessing the most efficient way to exchange information between actors (such as the drones, their pilots and the air traffic management system).

The project will also test two different concepts for unmanned traffic management architectures.

The information to be exchanged includes data such as strategic and tactical information prior and during the flight, tracking data (real time information about the position of the drone), information to avoid any conflicts prior to the flight and during the flight, and the provision of weather data.

Cranfield University’s Gokhan Inalhan said: “The flight demonstrations will put into practice scenarios, concepts and systems developed throughout the project to test how drones and manned aircraft can operate safely in the same airspace.

“At Cranfield, we will be running virtual flights alongside the drones physically flying at the airport, to test their interactions and air traffic management systems including U-Space. Our results will help inform the later demonstrations and move forward the whole concept of urban air mobility.

“This is a very exciting project and one that will pave the way for highways in the skies, removing traffic and congestion and changing the way we move around.”

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