From Korben Dallas’ shabby parking bay in The Fifth Element, to dazzling spaceports in Star Wars, our collective imagination is filled with air mobility infrastructure. Up until recently, representations of this unicorn from the future was confined to the realm of novels, films and video games. With the emergence of transport and delivery drones, they’re beginning to spill over into reality, revealing important infrastructure issues to boot. Vertiports, urban traffic management and control, regulations and security: if the city wants to accommodate UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) then it must transform.
A vertiport is a type of platform adapted to vertical takeoff and landing. It’s a key element which determines the advent of drones as a means of transport or delivery. These days, the majority of projects are at the concept stage, but a large-scale roll-out is becoming increasingly closer on the horizon. In France, Airbus, RATP and ADP have together launched a study into the integration of flying vehicles into urban transport for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. Many architects are also taking a particular interest in the topic and are trying their hand at the exercise. Take Pier 2 designed by Humphreys & Partners, an apartment block featuring drone platforms. Meanwhile, Saúl Ajuria Fernandez’s droneport operates like a large, circular beehive, is designed for small, light-weight package deliveries, and is located in a “disused urban vacuum” connected to major transit routes. There’s also a lot of interest from drone manufacturers: take the Korean giant Hyundai, who is already ahead of the games and plans to deploy its Urban Air Port in 2021 in Coventry in the UK. Sites can be installed in a matter of days, they’re off-grid, and have a physical footprint 60% smaller than a traditional heliport – clearly this small infrastructure is betting on an agile and light approach. Meanwhile, the German startup Lilium has revealed a vertiport design that can be integrated into new or existing constructions. At the same time, frameworks for developing this new type of infrastructure are well underway. The ISO group is looking to develop an international standard for “vertiport operations”, meanwhile the same procedure is underway at the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
Traffic and security issues
Being pilot-free, drones must rely on their communications systems which play a fundamental role. With this in mind, UTMs (Unmanned aircraft system traffic management) also determine the emergence of a drone transportation market. Cities are a complex environment, posing many challenges, like in-flight authorization management, interoperability, API development, data protection and remote pilot operating beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). In 2018, the Future Flight Consortium, led by Garuda Robotics and the Singapore Civil Defense Force, started developing a connected VTOL management system on a city-to-state scale. In the US and in Europe, major names such as NASA and Thalès are also working on developing similar devices. In a market whose growth is estimated at 20% per year, BCG is already talking about the “race” for the UTM market…
Not only is the arrival of drones transforming software, but it’s going to transform the city landscape too. The Drone Aviary project from design studio Superflux, offers a creative interpretation of the impact of UAVs on urban infrastructure. On the cards: flying advertising displays, drone assistants and mobile aerial signage. In more concrete terms, cities will no doubt have to deal with their challenges going “vertical”. For example, Mary Cummings, director of MIT’s Humans and Automation Lab, explains that the wind tunnel effect created by tall buildings is a major obstacle in the development of flying drones, which don’t fly well in high winds. The Flying High study published by NESTA also highlights security issues and the need for counter-drone measures, such as signal jammers or protective nets. It also raises issues surrounding battery charging, increasing the need for dedicated docking stations. When we look at the difficulties faced when rolling out docking stations for vehicles that stay grounded, well, we can easily say that the day when our cities’ skies will be abuzz with drones is still a relative way off. Not only that, but knowing just how pertinent air mobility solutions are for cities is still far from a given. Medical equipment deliveries, infrastructure inspections, surveillance, airport travel links… the airway is still yet to demonstrate its future potential with such services. In February 2021, Europe launched a research program aimed precisely at testing a whole range of technology and programs. Meanwhile, the ADP group, RATP and Choose Paris Region have embarked on a three-year testing phase to present functional examples for the Olympic Games in 2024.