Editor’s note: In the third and final part of this article series on the Air Mobility Initiative (AMI) in Germany, eVTOL.com reached out to Droniq GmbH to discuss the implementation of a U-space airspace as part of the initiative. In our first article, we interviewed Markus May, head of operations for urban air mobility (UAM) at Airbus, who talked about the initiative and why it was created. And in our second article, we interviewed Ivonne Kuger, executive vice president of corporate development for Munich Airport International, who shared the AMI’s strategy behind vertiport development.
Droniq GmbH, a joint venture of DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung and Deutsche Telekom, provides unmanned aircraft system traffic management (UTM) using mobile communication technology. The UTM system provides drone and eVTOL operators with a live air situation awareness showing the complete manned and unmanned air traffic on a single display, allowing safe operations for all airspace users and especially for drones flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).
Together with DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung, Droniq established a U-space sandbox in the Port of Hamburg in 2021 to demonstrate that the U-space concept developed by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) can function even with the current toolset of airspace design. It aims to ensure the safe and efficient use of manned and unmanned air traffic in urban areas.
With its experience in U-spaces, Droniq has joined the AMI, a consortium of more than 30 companies, including Airbus, Munich Airport International, DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung and Deutsche Telekom. The purpose of AMI is to develop and integrate eVTOL aircraft, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and vertiports in the city infrastructure together with the U-space airspace.
eVTOL.com spoke to Jan-Eric Putze, CEO of Droniq, about the U-space concept and how eVTOLS could benefit from the upcoming U-space airspace in Bavaria.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
eVTOL.com: The first U-space sandbox was located in the Port of Hamburg. It covered about 30 square kilometers (12 square miles). Why was Hamburg chosen as the test site for U-space?
Jan Eric Putze: The U-space sandbox was a project that we implemented together with our parent company, DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung, in 2021. It was funded by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMDV). The goal of the project was to show if and how EASA’s U-space concept can be implemented under the current airspace rules. We wanted to be the first in Europe to prove that EASA’s U-space concept could be transferred from theory into real operation.
To tackle this challenge, we tested the U-space concept from May until November 2021 in one of the most complex areas you can find for such a task — the Port of Hamburg. This area is rather demanding for drone operations. For instance, you have two airports nearby — the International Hamburg Airport Helmut Schmidt and the Airbus Hub of Hamburg-Finkenwerder. In addition to the complex airside situation, the project team had to cope with the infrastructure of the harbor, such as the port authority, fuel depots, and special custom areas, as well as existing railroads, freeways and the sea itself — all so-called “no-fly-zones.” We had to keep all of that in mind when it came to planning the project structure of the U-space sandbox in Hamburg.
As you can imagine, the amount of risk involved was rather challenging. But at the end, we succeeded in several ways. First, we showed that the U-space concept can be practically implemented. Next to this, we proved that Germany is “U-space ready.” With our UTM, we already meet all the technical requirements to implement a U-space and the mandatory services necessary. And of course, from Droniq’s perspective, we proved that we are ready to become Germany’s first U-space service provider (USSP), responsible for the safe coordination of drone traffic in a U-space. This is also the role that we want to fulfill in 2023, when U-spaces will finally be implemented in Europe.
eVTOL.com: Next to Hamburg, will there be other sites for testing a U-space?
Jan Eric Putze: From Jan. 26, 2023 onward, the first U-spaces can be implemented in Europe. As there is not much time left, I don’t think that we’ll see a lot more test projects regarding U-space like the sandbox in Hamburg. Instead, I think there will be two types of U-space projects — projects that last several years and projects that will not only focus on testing a U-space concept but also implementing it into regular operation afterward.
We are currently part of several projects with a focus on designing and building a U-Space. In these projects, we use our expertise not only to show how U-spaces can be implemented but also how unmanned traffic in a U-space can be safely and efficiently managed together with manned aviation. One of these projects is the AMI in Bavaria.
eVTOL.com: Can you tell us a bit more about the U-space that will be implemented by the AMI? Where will it be located and do you have any information regarding its size? Will there be more than one U-space built during the project?
Jan Eric Putze: Within AMI, we decided to carry out the first U-space in Bavaria. The U-space should be implemented in the region around the city of Ingolstadt. The project just started, so we still have to define the exact location of the U-space and its size. I think we can communicate details in the coming months.
Regarding the implementation of further U-spaces, it’s still too early to decide this yet, but of course, it is possible that further U-spaces can be created to cover other regions — or to enlarge the existing U-space. But this will be in the future. For now, we are concentrating on our current task within the AMI initiative.
eVTOL.com: To understand the U-space airspace better, it begins at 150 meters (500 feet) or less and ends at ground level, is this correct? If not, where does it begin and where does it end?
Jan Eric Putze: The German U-space regulation is being developed by our ministry of transport (BMDV). Accordingly, fixed dimensions for a U-space have not yet been determined. In addition to that, we should keep in mind that the dimensions of a U-space can differ according to the area in which the U-space is implemented. But for the time being, the maximum altitude is around 150 m (500 ft). This will definitely differ due to the obstacles in cities, such as office buildings and towers, etc.
eVTOL.com: What aircraft are allowed in the U-space besides helicopters, eVTOLs and drones?
Jan Eric Putze: U-space is a geographical area in which unmanned and manned traffic can operate safely and efficiently together. Helicopters are just one of the players out of many. Any manned aircraft could enter U-space but they have to be electronically visible.
eVTOL.com: Can you tell us more about the communication system that is needed between the aircraft and ground station?
Jan Eric Putze: The first eVTOL will be piloted. Communication will be established by using a two-way communication system, which has been standard in aviation for decades. But this is only the first step. Once the pilot is removed from the cockpit, the eVTOL might use voice recognition and transfer voice commands given directly into control inputs. At the final stage, ground stations and eVTOLs will communicate via direct interface with no manual input from a human. But let’s see what the future will bring.
eVTOL.com: What challenges do you see with integrating eVTOL operations into the airspace?
Jan Eric Putze: There is no real challenge of integrating an eVTOL in any airspace on a technical level. Airbus has all the knowledge and skills needed to design and build a solid and safe operating eVTOL. The challenge will be more on the public acceptance of eVTOL operations and whether the public sees the benefit in air taxi services.
But this is only the first challenge out of many more that we have to tackle in AMI. For instance, we have to create vertiport infrastructure for eVTOLs to take-off and land. Another challenge will be creating safe and efficient flight procedures, for example, approaches and departures to and from vertiports.
eVTOL.com: Is there anything else that you would like to share that we have not covered?
Jan Eric Putze: First of all, this is a great opportunity and marks one of the next major steps in the development of aviation. But to do this, we must ensure that this new chapter of aviation is safe and efficient for any airspace user, no matter if it’s manned or unmanned.
In order to achieve air safety and prevent mid-air collisions, we have to make sure that all participants in the urban air environment are electronically visible. This not only includes manned traffic like helicopters, but also unmanned traffic like drones. In addition, we have to ensure that air traffic can also be managed safely and efficiently with the same high safety standards that have always applied to the aviation industry.
EASA’s U-space concept gave us a great tool to tackle this challenge. From 2023 onward, first U-spaces can be implemented in Europe. The idea of the U-space concept is to define geographical areas in which manned and unmanned air traffic can fly safely and efficiently together.
To achieve this, there are two key roles in the U-space to ensure safe and efficient air traffic. On the one side, there is the USSP, which is responsible for coordinating unmanned air traffic. The second central role for the coordination of air traffic in the U-space is the common information service provider (CISP), which supplies the USSP with all relevant data for the provision of its services. In 2021, together with DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung, we have shown that the U-space concept works. We implemented Europe’s first U-space sandbox in the Port of Hamburg. During this project, Droniq fulfilled the role of the USSP, and DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung fulfilled the role of the CISP.