Following the adoption by the European Commission in April 2021 of the so-called U-Space package – three regulations that together create the conditions for the safe operation of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles in what is known as U-Space – the possibility of introducing a range of more complex drone services requiring longer-range operations will soon be a reality.
What is U-Space?
U-Space is a spatially delimited element of airspace. It is intended to create and coordinate the conditions necessary for the safe operation of manned and unmanned aircraft, preventing collisions between drones and other aircraft and thus significantly reducing the risks of drone traffic.
At U-Space, special rules and procedures coordinate drone traffic so that drone flights can be conducted quickly, safely and without a lengthy approval process – even beyond the pilot’s line of sight. The actual testing of the system outlined above has started in Hamburg, one of Europe’s busiest port cities, which is extremely timely as EU Member States are required by current legislation to implement U-Space by the beginning of 2023. German Droniq GmbH, a leading company in the integration of drones into airspace, and its parent company DFS, the German air navigation service provider, are the first to put the new solution into practice. The companies involved are building a U-Space Sandbox in the port of Hamburg, Germany’s largest seaport.
The project is worth around €1 million and is partly funded by the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, with the aim of laying the foundations for the implementation of further U-Spaces in Germany and to promote the further development of the local drone market. There are clear signs that drones are increasingly being used for commercial purposes – from monitoring construction sites to surveying potential pipeline and road routes – but to do so, drone flights need to be easy to implement and feasible at short notice. This seems simple in theory, but the reality is a little different, as drone flights are not always feasible, especially in areas with high drone volumes. The main reason for the difficulties is the lengthy flight approval process.
“In the future, U-Space will enable the full potential of drones to be realised in an urban environment,” said Jan-Eric Putze, CEO of Droniq, adding, “This is a milestone for unmanned air transport. We are proud to have shown for the first time what this future could look like.”
Tasks and roles
U-Space is based on the requirements set by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which partly define its technical and procedural design, the actors and the roles required for the organisation. The U-Space drone traffic is coordinated by a service provider, which is in fact the contact point for the drone pilots; this role is played by Droniq in the current pilot project. They issue the flight permits for drone missions, provide information on current air traffic and possible airspace restrictions. To do this, Droniq uses the first fully operational drone traffic management system (UTM). The other central role is played by DFS, the company developing the UTM system. As a single common information provider, Droniq provides all relevant airspace and air traffic data for the provision of U-Space services. In addition, the entire air traffic can be displayed in a combined aerial situational picture with unmanned flight data, which is an essential prerequisite for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights – and thus for the efficient use of drones.
“Our drone traffic systems put us in an excellent position internationally, providing a solid foundation for drone airspace integration. In this way we enable fast and sophisticated drone operations. This is an important step towards digital aviation combined with proven safety standards”, commented Friedrich-Wilhelm Menge, DFS Chief Technology Officer.