For many people, the concept of Urban Air Mobility evokes an idea straight out of cartoons or Sci-fi movies portraying a distant future. However, drones have been around for a while, making beautiful videos, delivering goods, and, sometimes, creating privacy and security issues. The current Dutch and European legislations do not allow drones to fly autonomously or over overpopulated areas. But how can proper regulations be developed if we do not know what kind of benefits and challenges drones can bring to our society? Here is Flying Forward to help answer those questions. The project predicts tests with autonomous flying drones on the High Tech Campus to further appropriate legislation for UAM. In this interview, we talk to Jonas Onland and Paul van Son about the objectives and challenges of this enterprise. Spoiler alert: That futuristic scenario is much more around the corner than we thought.
One of the very first 5G Hub supporters, Jonas Onland is Managing Partner at Serendipity and one of the masterminds behind Flying Forward. He describes the project as “a research and innovation call by the European Commission, as they see that Urban Air Mobility will be the future of mobility in about ten years.” Partnering with Jonas in this enterprise is Paul van Son, Innovation Manager at the High Tech Campus Eindhoven and the Initiator of the AI Innovation Center. He joined Flying Forward at the end of 2019 when the Campus’ long-term strategy towards 2030 was redefined. He explains that one of the High Tech Campus’ ambitions is to be somewhat a living lab, making use of its assets to enable discoveries and advancements.
Jonas knew that the European Commission was assiduously working on policies for the UAM of the future, especially in cities. Thus, he developed a proposal and came up with a project aiming to explore and investigate which social dilemmas drones could contribute to solving on, basically, three aspects: the sustainable city, the resilient city, and the city of people. He cites the renowned book Blue Ocean Strategy, where the dichotomy of a red ocean (where sharks eat each other as there is a lot of competition) and a blue ocean (where the opportunities lie) is discussed. In a clever wordplay, Jonas says: “We are going to the blue sky, literally,” to illustrate how they are looking for an innovative perspective, exploring new opportunities when it comes to Urban Mobility. He voices his surprise in the number of vehicles and roads we have. “But if you look from an Urban Air Mobility perspective,” he says, “there are about five or six lanes that we can start using with flying cars or cargo. Many mobility movements will change for the upcoming ten years from literally the road towards the air. And that is a huge business that is coming up.”
Bringing yet another point of view to the conversation, Paul notes that several technologies are coming into people’s lives in urban areas. However, “how can you ensure that the spaces remain human-centered while all this technology arrives?” he enquires. Flying Forward’s proposal predicts testing actual use cases with autonomous drones. Considering a campus, such as HTC, is a micro-city or a micro-society, their objective is to “perform tests with the drones, learn from those, and take that knowledge to regional and national governments to develop policies based on the learnings from the project,” Paul explains. Those tests encompass food delivery, real estate and air quality monitoring, surveillance, and others. As an example, he mentions the ambulance drone demo: “If someone has, for example, a heart attack, this use case provides a massively faster response in bringing the defibrillation unit to the patient. You can significantly reduce the time between the incident and reanimation; that can save your life,” he says, and adds: “That is one of the reasons why we need 5G and its ultra-low latency.”
Companies like Ericsson, Microsoft, Serendipity, and several SMEs were contacted at the beginning of the project to start forming a consortium around it. Jonas highlights Verses, a tech company situated on the High Tech Campus, who developed the spatial web as an operating system for Urban Air Mobility. In a metaphor, “the world is not flat anymore,” says Jonas, “it has become 3D.” Verses built the spatial protocol where the drones will be operating, moving from HTTP (internet) to HSTP, the new internet, basically.
Flying Forward foresees very concrete use cases, such as autonomously scanning the quality of buildings and rooftops, working on their preventive maintenance. It will also be possible to monitor and detect energy, water, or heat leaking, and security guards can receive an automatic signal to close a forgotten open window. The first tests are expected to happen between December 2021 and January 2022.
“There is quite some legislation to overcome,” Paul points out. When it comes to regulation, Flying Forward is almost under the chicken or the egg paradox. At the moment, drones are not allowed to fly fully autonomously in The Netherlands. However, to establish their research and build knowledge to help create the legislation, they need to fly. In the end, it is a matter of establishing a direct dialog with the government: “You have to go directly to the authorities, step by step, and come to an agreement with an operator that can intervene and help you develop your project. Actually, the authorities do want to see these tests happening in a real-life situation because they can learn from them and make legislation based on the learnings from the field,” Paul says.
According to him, there are large organizations interested and involved in the development of these regulations. They help advise the European Commission on those matters. The different Dutch governmental levels are also to be considered as, beyond the continental committee, there are national and local authorities. There is existing legislation for UAM and a new one coming up on a European level. Accordingly, the project has to readapt to the bill that is being designed. However, it is still unknown how it will look, turning planning into a challenging task. The solution? Creativity: “We find a way to be a bit creative, within the borders of the law, of course. But we have to be creative and partner with those governmental organizations to make it happen safely.”
Jonas says that the European Commission has stated that the research goal is to reveal the societal impact of UAM. What impact would it have when it comes to visual or noise pollution? Furthermore, how do you deal with issues around cybersecurity? All these societal challenges are there, and Flying Forward is helping authorities build new legislation to tackle those with assuredness.
Social acceptance of drones
It is easy to imagine that most people would find discomfort in the constant sight of drones out their windows. Therefore, assertive communication with the community is crucial. Paul explains that they have a massive responsibility to the Campus’ residents, their safety, and well-being. As such, the way in which they will experience these tests has to be positive. “This project is really about experimentation and testing. We will not necessarily have 100 drones flying over the campus all the time when people are working. We are probably going to perform those tests on weekends when there are no people around. In fact, you are not even allowed to fly over people at the moment,” he clarifies.
Jonas mentions that “if you want to start flying, you need to get a lot of approvals. So Paul is working on getting the right people, on a national level, to help us with that. We are getting all the checks and balances so that we are allowed to start.” He says that one of the most significant issues they encounter is liability: it is a huge problem if a drone drops out of the air and hits something or someone. Consequently, it is crucial to secure the drones are safe. Jonas then reinforces the importance of working close to the community and emphasizes the need to listen to their thoughts and concerns.
The heavier communication will start closer to the first tests, and the community can expect a continuous dialog coming from the project management office. Surveys with HTC’s residents might also be on the horizon as they can provide feedback on how they experience the changes around them. Paul highlights the need to make clear that the project results will be used for good purposes. He also thinks that “city councils have an enormous challenge popping up for the use of drones in the urban areas.”
A unique perspective from a joint effort
One of the unique aspects of Flying Forward is that it is the first project where autonomous drones will be tested in “real” environments. According to Paul, there are experiments using autonomous drones in remote areas, such as forests, but not in populated areas. “Normally, about 12,000 people are working on the High Tech Campus daily. So that has not been done before,” he describes.
Besides being the location for the project to happen, the High Tech Campus also has a “living lab role.” Hence, it is their responsibility to enable use cases to be taken off the paper working together with their suppliers to make them happen. “We, as High Tech Campus, have a connecting role in onboarding all these suppliers for use cases; in the end, they are the companies that are going to use the drones for their services. So we must be the linking pin to make all these cases happen and create the right infrastructure for that,” Paul says.
Jonas praises the role of the 5G Hub, stating he strongly believes in the way the initiative is working to promote a space where parties get together to truly collaborate. He explains that, at this point, the 5G Hub is providing the 5G connectivity, which is one of the key enablers for and one of the reasons why Urban Air Mobility is accelerating. “HTC is the only campus that has the 3.5 GHz available at this point, a crucial element for the low latency and uninterrupted connectivity needed for UAM,” he says. For him, one of the factors that granted their won on the call from the European Commission was the fact that they have access to 5G via the 5G Hub.
Paul van Son emphasizes that Flying Forward is a project that aims to contribute not only to “our own innovation and our operations,” but it intends to be a breeding ground for groundbreaking innovations and new companies and to increase service levels, as in, for example, having your lunch delivered by a drone. He explains that the project will dispose of a formidable infrastructure for testing with autonomous drones. So, it is also interesting for the team to see if they can leverage this infrastructure over a certain period to enable new use cases for companies in the industry.
To know more about the project, visit their website https://www.ff2020.eu/.