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The future with drones: interesting opportunities, open questions

Cities expect that drones may help them fulfil their sustainability objectives. Therefore it is important to examine when and how drones are really an option contributing to carbon neutrality. Also, new solutions are needed for airspace management before drone operations can expand. These were some of the topics at The Nordic Drone Event 2020 in Tampere.

Photo: Mirella Mellonmaa

How can drones contribute to sustainability in cities? Tampere, for example, aims to be carbon neutral in 2030. There are plenty of cities with similar goals. A ‘Low-carbon drone solutions’ project family is looking into this. It includes projects with different perspectives but a shared need to test, measure and co-create solutions.

Drones are a new factor, and we need to examine and verify their effects before establishing any operations, summarises Project Manager Heidi Heinonen of Forum Virium Helsinki.

Heinonen is managing The ‘Carbon neutral drone service solutions in Southern Finland’ project, which is piloting and promoting carbon neutral and emissions-free drone services. They study, for example, how drones could be used to reduce CO2 emissions in transport, compared to combustion engine vehicles.

When the same distance is covered by a drone and by a traditional car, drone’s emissions are lower. – But the problem is not solved so simply. There are many variables to be taken into account.

– Increase in drone’s size and load leads to an increase in emissions, and there is variation between drone types. We should also keep in mind that an electric drone needs batteries, and the battery industry is not a clean one as such, says Heinonen.

Further to that, there are plenty of questions to answer. Will citizens want drones flying above their heads? How should cities take drones into account in urban design and city planning? Or, what kind of business opportunities do drones provide?

Uses for drones

In city centres drones might be used for various last mile solutions, making deliveries more cost-effective and sustainable. The host of the Drone Event, Tampere University of Applied Sciences, participates in the ‘New solutions in city logistics’ project that is developing light distribution logistics in urban areas.

Meeting the climate goals might be contributed to, for example, by using a lower-emission drone instead of a van to deliver a parcel in a city centre.  A drone flies a straight line to the destination, travelling often a shorter distance than a land vehicle. This makes it an interesting device for transport in rural areas and various emergency and rescue services.

– For example, in case of a fire alarm a drone can fly directly to the scene and relay information that allows the incident commander to make an early assessment of the situation. In security sector there is a clear case of emissions reduction, if a guard monitors an area using a drone instead of driving around it in a car, says Heinonen. 

A challenge: airspace management

Both public and private sectors are involved, when the need for and possibilities of utilising drones is reflected, and also citizens’ participation is wanted. The biggest challenge for the rapid expansion of drone operations is the infrastructure. There are innovations and business opportunities, but will they be able to take off?

One of the key bottlenecks for all of this to grow is the ability to access airspace, have the authorisations to fly. And then it comes to all the social acceptance issues, said Alain Siebert, Chief Economist & Master Planning of SESAR Joint Undertaking, when speaking at the Nordic Drone Event 2020.

The modernisation of Europe’s Air Traffic Management (ATM) networks is important because of the forecasted increase in air traffic. Nowadays the system can handle thousands of airplanes, most of them having a pilot to talk to. In the years to come, according to Siebert, Europe needs an infrastructure that can handle hundreds of thousands of different vehicles, most of them unmanned.

To solve this problem for the drones, a concept of U-Space is being developed. It refers to a set of new services and specific procedures designed to support safe, efficient and secure access to airspace for large numbers of drones. 

– We know we have to act very fast on that, but it will not be enough. With this type of traffic complexity, we must have automation instead of a human in the centre of information processing for traffic management, says Siebert.

The vision is to build a fully scalable ATC system for all air traffic with new services that will also help eliminate environmental inefficiencies.

As for the regulations, national rules will be replaced by a common EU regulation. The purpose of this reform is to create a truly harmonised drone market in Europe with the highest level of safety. More information about the new EU-wide rules on drones is available on the website of the European Aviation Safety Agency.

 

The ‘Carbon neutral drone service solutions in Southern Finland’ project’s main implementor is the City of Helsinki innovation company Forum Virium Helsinki Oy. The sub-implementors are Posintra Oy and South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences (Xamk). The project is funded by the European Regional Development Fund ERDF and will run until the end of 2021.

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