This was a big question during the recent DroneTalks Aerial Cities conference. Although a discussion along these lines is not surprising, some of the answers were!

Many individuals on stage during the conference believe the answer to this question is ‘no’, especially when it pertains to Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and/or drones operating in cities. Honestly, I find this a concerning point of view. At the simplest level, from my perspective, if it flies and there are other things potentially in its line of flight – other uncrewed and/or crewed aircraft – then it ‘is’ aviation and needs to have some form of traffic management to ensure the safety of the individuals/cargo on board.

Marcel Kägi, Director Aviation Policy and Strategy Division at Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) Switzerland shared a view in the first panel (Roles and responsibilities of national, regional and local governments regarding the management of aerial cities [progress since last year]) that “airspace is not owned; it is a public good and we need to ensure that all market entrants can use it.”

Although UAM or Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) is a local issue, this topic cannot be supported in a way that every city is doing something different, as we need to have players from different regions come together in support of safety harmonisation.

The next panel of the day, a perspective of cities and aerial visions, took opposing sides to this discussion. Representatives on this panel included the Madrid City Council, NEOM and UIC2 along with government representatives. The Urban-Air-Mobility Initiative Cities Community (UIC2) representative took a strong stance that drones are ‘not’ aviation and that cities should lead when it comes to this type of flying traffic.

Borja Blond Arroyabe, Director of Advanced Air Mobility at NEOM, had a different perspective stating that ‘everything needs to come from aviation first in deciding who should be controlled and who should lead for that controlling.” NEOM has all transportation integrated from the start.

A pragmatic example from Poland was also shared. As cities are new to this topic, PANSA (the Polish ANSP responsible for their airspace) and the CAA have launched ‘drone schools’ to teach cities about the ‘what & how’ related to drones in their airspace.

Pedro Fernandez, Head of the International Mobility and Environment Projects at the Madrid City Council, shared that they have created an UAM Council to bring together ground mobility and aviation and develop guidelines for how these topics should be handled. Seems like a great idea to me!

The second day of Aerial Cities kicked off with a panel with a mix of participants across the mobility spectrum – Austro Control, the IAA, Transport Malta and Spright. An interesting question was posed by Justin Steinke, Senior Vice President Commercial Business at Spright, regarding the topic of Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM). Do we need it yet? It seems (at least in the US) the industry is trying to collaborate without UTM systems in place. So what we’re doing, isn't actually UTM – deconfliction, etc. His statement about the industry status, I believe best describes the seemingly wide gap on the topic of drones being aviation, “drones started as toys and are not mature or consistent enough on their own. Spright is an aviation company starting to use drones, not a tech company trying to learn aviation.”

This is a great statement about many of the challenges occurring across our industry. I believe we need both:

  • Innovative tech startups developing new concepts to drive new options within our airspace
  • Proven aviation experts who have already lived through all of the difficult lessons learned and come to a place where airspace management works.

We need to be learning from each and collaborating on a middle ground, not trying to ignore the other half of the discussion.

It’s impossible to leave the topic of drones vs aviation without touching on vertiports vs airports. The ‘From Boxes to Vertiports’ panel had representatives from Skyportz, Eve Air Mobility, Ferrovial and Unisphere to consider where we will build vertiports and how they will function compared to an airport.

How do we justify the construction of new infrastructure that initially might only serve the top 1% of the population. This question kicked off the panel. Although I believe this question is less about vertiports themselves and more about how we get UAM/AAM to a use case that serves more than the top 1% of the population.

There was an overwhelming direction that vertiports need to be landside or even separate from main airports for success. The model should be that of a regional airport/heliport from a security perspective. Think general aviation. As long as eVTOLs have a pilot onboard, the communications model should follow an ATM as this communication is around voice. Some interesting considerations on the path to autonomous air taxis, although widespread adoption of a model without a pilot onboard is likely still a bit farther away in reality.

It's great to see these discussions 'taking flight' and I look forward to being a part of the evolution towards UAM/AAM.