Europe’s CORUS-XUAM project to establish how so-called U-Space infrastructure for uncrewed aircraft could be used to support advanced air mobility (AAM) flight operations is set to draw to an end in early 2023. But there is still plenty of work to be done to lay a firm air traffic management (ATM) foundation for the new eVTOL aircraft and drones that are set to operate alongside existing traffic in and around busy cities.
Volocopter, along with other AAM pioneers, has invested plenty of energy in the CORUS-XUAM exercises, including recent flight trials at Germany’s DLR National Experimental Test Centre for Unmanned Aircraft at Magdeburg-Cochstedt Airport. Along with other companies looking to kick-start the launch of eVTOL air taxi operations, Volocopter is very motivated to ensure that all aspects of the AAM ecosystem are in place. The German company is one of 30 partners working to start limited-scale services in and around Paris when the French capital hosts the Summer Olympic Games in 2024.
Now Volocopter has joined the European Commission’s SESAR 3 ATM research consortium and is backing efforts to start a new project addressing operational needs around vertiports. This work, which will start in 2023 and is set to run for three years, will prepare for higher levels of automation in flight operations. An early objective for next year will be to get clarity over how the Paris flights can be managed.
Back in August 2019, the company flew its eVTOL technology demonstrator aircraft at Helsinki International Airport as part of SESAR’s Gulf of Finland U-Space project, which continued into 2021. The Helsinki exercise involved local air traffic controllers both the established ATM procedures and, in tandem, the new uncrewed traffic management system. Volocopter has also flown its aircraft in Singapore, and further trial flights are planned in the southeast Asian megacity over the next couple of years.
While Eurocontrol has been the consortium lead for the CORUS-XUAM project and is a founding partner in the SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) joint undertaking, the task of standardizing new rules of the air in Europe will fall to EASA, working under the auspices of ICAO. Under its Rulemaking Task RMT.0230, EASA has a working group assigned to assess what rules might be needed for operations in urban environments. CORUS-XUAM is a somewhat contrived acronym that stands for Concept of Operations for European UTM Systems—Extension for Urban Air Mobility.
Helping Cities to Believe in Advanced Air Mobility
Given the inherently localized scale of some of the early applications for new eVTOL vehicles and drones, city officials need to be involved in the process for establishing acceptable airspace management procedures to an extent that would not normally apply around airports. In this respect, Volocopter’s head of airspace and vertiports, Joern Jaeger, told FutureFlight that early use cases like the Paris Olympics are a good opportunity to “make cities believe [in AAM], and the city authorities seem to value us as a sounding board.”
One key objective is not to add to the workload of air traffic controllers, which Jaeger said can be achieved, in part, by identifying and segregating routes that avoid disrupting airport operations. Local obstacles also have to be factored into plans, or at least guiding principles for dealing with them, and that requires accurate data.
While Volocopter’s business model envisages a transition to autonomous commercial eVTOL flights in its VoloCity and VoloRegion vehicles, it accepts that early operations will have pilots on board. And, for now, despite the increased use of data links in ATM, it expects that pilots will communicate with controllers in the traditional way.
“We have to be realistic, and the current rules of the air have a clear requirement to have two-way voice communications via VHF [very high frequency],” explained Jaeger, who previously worked for two decades with German air navigation service provider DFS. “We can gradually make more and use of digital communications, such as for tasks that are non-time-critical, but we have to clearly inform partners [i.e. other operators and controllers] about our flight intentions. Even if we are flying VFR [visual flight rules] we will still put up flight plans and everything will be pre-coordinated at the beginning to give confidence to all partners.”
Recent operational trials conducted by Volocopter and other companies involved in preparations for the 2024 Olympic Games at Pointoise Aerodrome near the French capital have provided the opportunity to evaluate multiple aspects of the AAM ecosystem. This included demonstrating that eVTOL flight plans and position data can be readily accessed and used to control piloted and uncrewed aircraft in the same airspace.
“What we’ve seen in Paris so far has been great support [for AAM operations],” Jaeger concluded. “We need to integrate [eVTOLs] with other modes of transport and there is huge potential to show to the public what the new [air taxi] services can bring.”
On December 20, EASA published its first set of acceptable means of compliance and guidance material covering the implementation of U-space operations in the European Union. The air safety regulator confirmed that its U-space regulator framework (EU 2021/664, 665 and 666) will come into effect from Jan. 26, 2023.