Delegates hear viewpoints from regulators and innovators on developing urban air sector on the first day of GUAS at Farnborough

The challenges of regulating autonomous vehicles plus some of the lessons learned from the helicopter industry were discussed at the inaugural Global Urban Air Summit, marking the first time global regulators have come together with the industry to determine how urban air mobility will operate.

Themes from the first day include the importance of public acceptance around the safety of urban air mobility (UAM) vehicles; the role of autonomy; parallels with the helicopter industry, and the need to differentiate UAMs from drones.

Tim Johnson, Policy Director for the UK’s CAA spoke alongside Jay Merkle, Executive Director, Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, US Federal Aviation Administration.

Johnson explained that while there was pressure from innovators to move quickly, there needed to be global regulatory standards and learning from trials of UAM technology would be key. Merkle stated that while regulators were under pressure to keep pace with innovators, the challenge was broader than achieving regulatory approvals for getting vehicles airborne. Instead, developing repeatable technology would be fundamental to the industry’s success.

Regulators hold humans to account – not autonomous vehicles

In discussing what was more challenging: managing the emergence of urban or unmanned vehicles, Jay Merkle opted for UAM, pointing out constraints around air space in urban areas and the fact existing flight paths cannot be disrupted. Merkle also made the point that “regulators are accustomed to holding humans to account, autonomous vehicles make this a challenge.”

Johnson said planning, battery power, privacy demands and general acceptance of the industry were the leading challenges to the emergence of unmanned aircraft. Both regulatory representatives highlighted managing risk as a major factor for the UAM industry, stating that society has a “low tolerance and high expectation of safety standards for air travel”; as well as the need for vehicles to have common standards and international protocols.

UAM will complete supply chain

Jay Merkle suggested that airports would be fundamental to where the infrastructure for UAM vehicles would be consolidated and that major airlines were currently working with UAM developers, recognising it as a way to complete the supply chain.

François Sillion, Uber’s Director, Advanced Technologies Research Centre spoke about the importance of continued dialogue between Uber and aircraft manufacturers to ensure vehicles will operate effectively on their platform. In his view, no single company would make the industry successful, instead partners, competitors and regulators would: “provide a framework which enables this market to emerge and creates a well-tested and well thought-out solution for transportation.”

Mr Sillion explained that the launch of Uber Copter in July 2019 in New York was providing insight into managing a UAM operation. The organisation intends to create a “Skylane Network” which would manage variables including weather, altitude, and battery charging to deliver a successful passenger service.

Mildred Troegeler, Director of Global Aerospace Integration for Boeing NeXt highlighted the need for the entire lifecycle to be governed by safety, from building and certifying platforms, in managing the airspace, in ensuring reliable and effective maintenance and development of infrastructure.

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