U-space design and implementation: EUROCONTROL’s key role in supporting Member States

Laurent Renou

Laurent Renou, Head of Air Transport Innovation at the EUROCONTROL Innovation Hub, which is supporting the implementation of U-space and drone integration programmes among Member States. He explains how EUROCONTROL helps Member States address the challenges they face, such as urban air mobility.

What kind of support can you give Member States in their programmes?

Member States come to us with challenges, and we help them identify the risks and implement solutions. For this we have developed a strategy which addresses both very short-term and longer-term challenges.

Among the long-term issues is urban air mobility – which is an exciting challenge but complex in terms of infrastructure (such as vertiports) and air traffic management procedures. We will have to integrate these and decide what kind of equipment needs to be deployed and the interactions with existing airports and air traffic management services.

We are leading the SESAR EUREKA vertiport integration research project, which has 35 partners including civil aviation authorities, industry and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and is active in six countries. This project will develop a procedure for managing arrivals, departures and turnarounds at vertiports, taking into account key parameters such as interaction with the ATC tower, the impact on airport capacity and emergency management operations

What will EUREKA deliver in terms of operational procedures tailored to individual requirements?

The project started in mid-2023 and will end in summer 2026. There will be four different solutions going up to technology readiness level 7, so very close to implementation and deployment. We will have a solution for arrivals and departures including routes and trajectories, another solution around vertiport collaborative traffic management, the third will be emergency management and the fourth, integration into the network – flow management. Countries involved include Italy, Spain and France.

The idea is to develop some principles and guidelines for vertiport deployment across Europe, based on the six different views of the participating countries. At the end of the project, we will also provide recommendations for regulations and standards. And we will have identified the maturity of the technology that will be needed.

Will EUREKA work cover vertiports inside and outside the airport perimeter?

Both – but for stand-alone vertiports, integration with air traffic management should be a lesser problem. One of the main issues we need to tackle is integration with ATM traffic.

This project is very complex because of its size and challenges; EUROCONTROL has been identified as the organisation with the capabilities to coordinate this work, with the capacity to develop individual implementation programmes and define recommendations. We are seeking to align the different local implementations, sharing the results – both the successes and the challenges. That is the added value that EUROCONTROL can bring, being a neutral body. From these six different implementations we will be able to export the lessons learned to other countries.

It is part of our Innovation Hub strategy, to foster innovation in a collaborative, inclusive manner.

A more short-term example of the work we are doing is to help support the integration of U-space services as a result of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) U-space regulation, which came into force at the start of 2023. In the last 18 months, our EUROCONTROL Innovation Hub has helped Member States with expert advice from several Agency directorates, including the EUROCONTROL Network Manager (NM), which we can now provide as a package.

First, the State needs to understand the nature of current drone activity. With our Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) colleagues, we have developed a drone detection prototype solution that enables the Member State authority to understand existing drone traffic patterns. The system has already been installed in London, Paris and Brussels and will soon be put to work in other European States, for example Cyprus and Austria.

This shows us the traffic idea of numbers and types of drones, whether they are flying in visual line of sight and at what height they are flying.

The second service we can deliver is a process – guidelines for U-space risk assessment, based on the SORA (Specific Operating Risk Assessment) tool. We published the first guidelines in 2023 and we are now regularly updating the documentation and presenting this to Member States. So far, we have supported nine countries with this service in 2023 and we will provide it to eight other countries in 2024.

"The idea is to develop some principles and guidelines for vertiport deployment across Europe, based on the six different views of the participating countries. "

Does this work help Member States identify where U-space areas will be located?

For this we have a new U-space simulation tool, the result of a close collaboration with Airbus, to help us and Member States design the U-space that will manage future drone traffic. We have already used it to support Estonia in its U-space development programme and other States will also be using it soon (see related article in this issue: Advancing U-space implementation through a collaborative approach to simulation).

U-space areas might be developed by Member States and by individual cities and ports who will want their own drone and advanced air mobility eco-systems. Where do you think the major areas of growth will come from?

I think growth will come from both Member States and cities and ports. The original demand always starts with cities and ports. Take Rome, for example. Advanced Air Mobility planning there began with the urban ecosystem but then the State had to facilitate that ecosystem in different locations and harmonise procedures with other countries.

"As we support different implementations, we are developing a collaborative insight into the benefits of each solution and how this can be scaled and exported to different locations."

There seem to be different national approaches to architecture – especially the information flows between the common information service and the U-space service provider. This does not appear to be harmonised throughout Europe. How big a problem is this and how do we get around it? Does EUROCONTROL have a role here?

We need to be very open and assess the different architecture options. That is why it is good that we have many different cities involved so we can draw on different experiences – identify which model works well for a given environment, which one might need improvement, and which one should be avoided altogether. Maybe there is not a single solution that fits all.

As we support different implementations, we are developing a collaborative insight into the benefits of each solution and how this can be scaled and exported to different locations.

Are there major differences between states on U-space implementation and how do you reach a U-space architecture solution which best suits the customer’s needs?

We listen. We then facilitate a discussion. We don’t come with a solution – we offer different examples and then focus on a solution which best meets their needs. We connect them with other customers to understand in more depth the lessons learned.

How do you plan for U-space Management systems to have scalability built into their operations from day one?

It’s important that we are involved in different initiatives because we have access to all the data and we can share some of this data with Member States. We have an agreement on what data can be shared for the benefits of all States, based on the digital resources of the EUROCONTROL Network Manager (NM).

As EUROCONTROL builds the new digital platform for NM we will be able to – where approved – share increasing amounts of data to the benefit of everyone.

Do Member States regard drones and electric vertical take off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft as a single industry?

I think there are two different approaches required.

Urban air mobility faces many social acceptance challenges. For sure there are technical challenges, but this is what engineers like. Public acceptance, however, is an entirely different challenge.

With drones we can already see some clear benefits and in many places the industry has been established.

One aspect which crosses both, and where we can help, is in noise assessments. The EUROCONTROL Innovation Hub already does this for commercial aviation clients and we are also working now to assess the noise impact from these new kinds of vehicle – because noise is a key factor in their social acceptance. We have already developed some new tools to complement our existing range of noise assessment capabilities.

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