That drones are something that has come to stay is already obvious.
But, what security guarantees do these prototypes of autonomous and unmanned flights present?
How can the traffic of these devices coming and going through the skies of our cities be organized in the future?
The Ágora project tries to answer this question, an R&D initiative promoted by the Airbus company and the Andalusian Foundation for Aerospace Development, FADA-CATEC, which is a pioneer in Spain.
At the ATLAS Experimental Flight Center, in Villacarrillo (Jaén), some tests were carried out in mid-November to approach a real situation in a U-space environment, the European project of UTM (Autonomous Traffic Control, Unmanned Traffic Management, in its acronym in English) —an acronym that identifies the set of services to coordinate the operations of unmanned aircraft among themselves and with the rest of the airspace users―.
In that test, the flight of two different drones was arranged, which presented a conflict between their respective flight plans.
The first of them, equipped with highly autonomous obstacle detection capabilities, alerted the U-space systems to the presence of an unexpected crane in the middle of its route.
"These conflicts in air traffic are going to increase as the number of services of this type of autonomous drones grows," explains Antidio Viguria, technical director of the Center for Advanced Aerospace Technologies (CATEC) in Seville and coordinator of these tests with which has been welcomed to the Ágora project.
Its objective is none other than to move towards more sustainable and intelligent cities, while guaranteeing the safe integration of all types of operations with highly autonomous drones (aerial robots) in urban environments through the use of U-space services.
"The demonstration with the crane was not designed for a specific application, but was aimed at testing a series of services that allow drones to be safely integrated into the airspace," Viguria abounds through a videoconference with EL PAÍS.
“These services are perfectly complemented by the autonomous flight decision capabilities of another drone, for example the detection and avoidance capability, that is, if it detects that there may be a collision, it is capable of automatically changing its flight plan, maintaining other parameters that You must observe with the rest of the drones, such as the separation distance.
If this is done quickly, you get more out of and more efficient airspace.”
For drones to be safely integrated into the airspace, the design of the UTM is essential and it is in its development where Airbus collaboration comes in.
"UTM is the fabric that unites everything and only when it is perfected and developed will all the possibilities that come to mind when we think of drones be deployed," explains Miguel Ángel Vilaplana, the company's manager of UTM in Spain. aeronautics in the same videoconference.
Its design is essential to be able to safely manage the flight of highly autonomous drones, that is, those that are not constantly piloted by a human from the ground.
Technology is the essential pillar to manage this interaction because, as Vilaplana points out, there will be no drone air traffic controllers in cities.
“We are seeing how there are drones that deliver medicines in remote places, parcel applications and this Christmas we are going to be monitored on the roads by drones, but until we have a way to regulate their traffic safely, it will be very difficult to move forward and that develop," he says.
"How to help them if something happens, if one fails, how do we control the impact on other air vehicles or with manned aviation?" He adds.
The development of this technology hand in hand with FADA-CATEC is the basis of the Ágora project.
For the development of the project, the company, from its plant in Puerto Real (Cádiz), and the Andalusian Foundation for Aerospace Development (FADA) have created a Joint Innovation Unit (UIC), to promote this industrial research.
“The system has to be highly automated to be very safe, because the idea is that it manages many vehicles and that if something goes wrong, the entire ecosystem is controlled, also taking into account that the drones will carry out very advanced operations.
These are the tasks that we want to attack in Ágora at the research level at the moment”, indicates Vilaplana.
Viguria contextualizes with practical examples: "If the GPS fails me, we have to develop solutions that, from an alternative means of positioning,
allow me to navigate and be able to carry out the operation until I can land safely.
Or if I lose the communications link, to be able to plan a trajectory that allows me to reach a landing point.
The challenge of a common regulatory framework
Another essential element to give impetus to the project is the regulatory framework.
“There is still a gap between what drones can do and what the regulatory framework allows.
And that is also what Ágora wants to advance”, indicates the Airbus engineer.
While in the field of conventional air traffic it is very obvious that the standards must be global, the consensus in the UTM is more complex.
“There is a risk that each city, and even each neighborhood, wants to develop its own interface to drive the applications and the added value of the drones, and that could create the risk of an operator designing a drone with a system of emission or a certain interface, but that in France they demand another one ”, warns Vilaplana.
That is why work is being done to promote international standards.
After the US and China took the lead in regulatory development, the European Union's U-space is a serious bet to generate that global standard.
“At the European level, a very clear effort is being made that is coupled with the fact that Europe wants to lead this at an international level.
Having these common standards is essential to advance in this field”, the head of Airbus abounds.
Viguria indicates that the technological challenges of this project involve defining new concepts of operations for U-space, which will have their international regulation in February 2023. "From that moment on, in a period of a couple of years it will be possible to set up a infrastructure that allows the development of applications, so that from 2025 we could begin to implement applications for long-distance inspection of linear infrastructures and logistics”, Viguria ventures.
The gestation of these on-board algorithms for the management of contingencies in the flight of drones has its epicenter in the ATLAS Experimental Flight Center, located among the sea of olive trees that surrounds Villacarrillo.
“It is a privileged space.
The orography, the meteorology,
The Ágora project is co-financed by the Junta de Andalucía with 1.06 million euros.
The Minister of University, Research and Innovation, José Carlos Gómez Villamandos, has highlighted that this investment contributes to "the community continuing to make a difference and be a benchmark in a sector as strategic as aerospace and specifically in the field of non-aircraft vehicles. manned”.
In addition to the ATLAS Experimental Flight Center in Jaén, Andalusia has the UAV Innovation Center in Seville or the Test Center for Unmanned Systems (CEUS) in Huelva.
Andalusia is the only community that has an Aerospace Strategy for the period 2021-2027, which includes among its priorities the development of new businesses such as RPAS (uncrewed aircraft) and their applications.
According to the data included in the strategy designed by the autonomous administration, the drone market is valued at more than 20,000 million dollars, and it is expected that by 2025 it will increase to 54,000 million euros.
The European Commission estimates that in two decades this sector will employ more than 100,000 people.
An opportunity for empty Spain
In an environment where 5-G has not even penetrated effectively, a priori it might be thought that the development of technology to guarantee the safe flight of unmanned aircraft without ground control is limited to large cities, contributing to open further the gap between the rural world and the cosmopolitan world.
But Miguel Ángel Vilaplana, the head of Airbus UTM, sees it as an opportunity.
“In this context, we always tend to talk about urban mobility, about air taxis, when the fastest advances have been made in rural areas.
The most important company in drone logistics, Zipline, has operational networks in African countries”, he points out.
"The fastest benefit and what can lead us to this being better socially accepted is its development in the rural environment", he abounds.
Antidio Viguria, technical director of the Advanced Center for Aerospace Technologies (CATEC), also believes that empty Spain offers many more opportunities for the development of technologies and the implementation of drone applications.
“The requirements and risks are lower because it is not the same to fly in a rural area than in the middle of Madrid.
And that can facilitate the development of certain applications, but also provide an opportunity to incorporate that Spain emptied into this new technology and the drone sector”.
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