SAFIR-Med builds upon a major legacy
2012: The first discussions were held in the Royal Antwerp Aviation Club amongst private pilots (PPL-A) who would later launch Helicus, that today coordinates the SAFIR-Med project. These pilots were active in the medical sector, where doctors and logistics staff started to inquire about how drones could fulfill urgent medical needs.
2014: DHL started a research project in cooperation with the Institute for Flight System Dynamics of RWTH Aachen and other partners, in order to deliver urgent goods like medicines, to remote locations. This project showed the need for the transportation of urgent medical goods by UAVs. During the first three-month long BVLOS flight campaign in the German Wadden Sea a quadcopter was used. The second BVLOS flight campaign was executed in the winter 2015/16 in the alps. An eVTOL tilt-wing UAS was developed by RWTH Aachen specifically for this purpose.
2016: Rising quality and cost challenges within the healthcare system resulted in hospitals increasingly working together and the creation of hospital networks. Such new demand for urgent ad-hoc medical transport could not be fulfilled by already struggling existing road-based solutions. This is the year that the “Helicus Aero Initiative” program (HAI) was formally founded, upon the explicit request of doctors, clinical biologists and anatomic pathologists (later joined by hospital pharmacists), to provide an alternative transport solution by drone. An initial formal partnership with 27 hospitals was created, now having further expanded to include 35 hospitals.
2017: Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM) systems were developed, with the aim to share airspace with piloted air traffic, including commercial airplanes, general aviation and sports aircraft. Air Traffic Management (ATM) so far covered piloted flights only - providing information, control, and a legislative framework. Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) control manned flights both under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) as well as under Visual Flight Rules (VFR). Europe-wide ATM simulations have been performed within SESAR industrial research since 2017. SAFIR-Med will develop simulation scenarios allowing to analyse of concepts in different European countries, taking into account their specific situations.
Analysis of the impact of the proposed UTM system on ATM was necessary to design shared airspace operations. AgentFly Technologies (AFT), a SAFIR-Med project member, participated in several ATM and UTM simulations. AgentFly Technologies has contributed to the SESAR ATM projects PJ10 PROSA - 1.b-Flight Centered ATC (2016-2019), 2.a-Controller Assistance Tools in En-Route Environment (2016-2019), and SESAR PJ10-W2 PROSA - SOL73-Flight-centric ATC (2019-2022). A NextGen concept was built for the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), helping coordinate the effort between Europe and the US.
2018: This is the year the Medrona project was launched in which a first interface was written (by NSX) between Command & Control Center (run by Helicus, also the Medrona project coordinator) and U-Space Service Provider (simulated by Unifly). The medical flights (using SABCA UAV under Air Traffic Control supervision of skeyes) were individually requested and authorized via this new interface.
We also commemorate the first wave of Very Large Demonstrator (VLD) projects on which SAFIR-Med further builds to develop a robust European airspace that includes unmanned aviation (U-Space). A great job was done in 2018-2020 by the original #SAFIR team that, together with the U-space VUTURA project, laid the foundation for SAFIR-Med project. Many of our project partners, including the current and the previous project coordinators, were involved in one of these early projects.
SAFIR stands for Safe and Flexible Integration of Initial U-space Services in a Real Environment. The SAFIR consortium was led by Unifly and consisted of 13 public and private organisations. Some of the current SAFIR-Med project partners were included in that consortium (the logistics service provider Helicus, Air Traffic Control skeyes, UAV manufacturer SABCA) as well as some of the advisory board members (telecom provider Proximus, BVLOS test center DronePort and the Port of Antwerp). Amazon Prime Air was als a partner with whom integration concepts were aligned at global level.
Over the course of 18 flights, SAFIR successfully demonstrated the safety and viability of integrated drone traffic in a challenging environment. Three U-space service providers (USSP) and an Air Navigation Service Provider jointly controlled the airspace. Interoperable, harmonized and standardized U-space services can be deployed in a safe and reliable manner across Europe.
The SAFIR use cases were first successfully tested at the state-of-the-art secured test environment of DronePort in Sint-Truiden. Its large flying areas for both manned and unmanned aviation make DronePort the perfect setup for developing and testing alongside each other in a safe context. Next, the team moved their operations to the larger Antwerp area, including the city and Port of Antwerp, to test the viability of the use cases in a realistic environment.
SAFIR proved the ability of drones to safeguard critical areas, such as an international port or an urban environment. It was demonstrated how the Port of Antwerp was able to request a drone to inspect a certain area should there be reason for concern. In addition, the project showed how multiple UTM systems can be interoperable, ensuring every airspace user is aware of airspace conditions at all times.
This year also marked the start for the German research projects VISION and FALKE, in which the SAFIR-Med project partners flyXdrive and RWTH are involved amongst other partners. The partners in VISION focus on the safe integration into the airspace during rescue operations, including conflict resolution, collision avoidance and a first implementation of traffic information services which later named U-space services to enable regular operations of UAS in the work of fire fighters. The use-case of FALKE is the support of civil protection services in case of a major incident. To allow optimal support in this scenario advanced path planning tools are being developed to optimize the flight path and stay clear obstacles and other airspace users.
The five cities of the MAHHL region (Maastricht, Aachen, Hasselt, Heerlen and Liege) as well as the city of Antwerp, joined the EU Smart Cities community around "Urban Air Mobility"- Initiative 2018. The objectives of the Urban Air Mobility Initiative across the MAHHL cities go towards better transport and logistical connections within the region, as well as better connections to cross regional transport hubs with drones and Air Taxis.
2019: The U-Space VUTURA project demonstrations that took place this year were already mentioned before. The VUTURA project focused on the following aspects: validating the use of shared airspace between existing, manned airspace users and drones; validating more than one U-space service provider providing U-space services in a specific airspace and the procedures needed to support drone flights; ensuring alignment of regulation and standardization between SESAR developments and U-space service providers; and increasing the pace by which European cities and companies exploit emerging technologies related to drones.
During the VUTURA project demonstrations, drones and manned aviation were demonstrated to safely operate within a shared airspace. This was done through several demonstration scenarios with different types of drones, multiple U-Space service providers and different stakeholders sharing real-time data using web-interfaces. TU Delft, one of the SAFIR-MED partners, demonstrated during the VUTURA project flights above the university campus in Delft that a low-priority mapping drone can give way to a high-priority medical drone. This level of automation was achieved by the use of real-time traffic data from the U-Space service providers. During the SAFIR-Med Project, TU Delft and NSX will integrate an improved version of this tactical deconfliction method using detailed traffic information that is available on the ground, into the Helicus Command and Control Center (C2C). The ground based Helicus C2C will demonstrate how also at an urgent tactical level an extra DAA safety layer (cf. Swiss Cheese model) of deconfliction can be added, creating a new U-Space capability/Service. Representing different layers of the Swiss Cheese model, such a ground based DAA capability is independent and additional to both solid pre-flight and in-flight flight path routing as well as from emergency related drone sensor based DAA.
2020: The HAI-SCS R&D project is launched focusing on building technological solutions for the HAI medical drone transport program in three key areas that correspond with the SCS acronym: (1) Scheduling (AI based flight routing), (2) Connectivity (multi technology robust connection between UAV and Command & Control Center including 5G) and finally (3) Cyber Security covering all parts of the chain, ensuring robustness against potential malicious intent. The project is coordinated by Helicus and members include skeyes, SkeyDrone, NSX and SABCA, next to telecom operator Orange and world leading research groups COSIC and imec. An impressive advisory board included many of the SAFIR-Med advisory board members, like: Eurocontrol, The Red Cross, the insurer Baloise and the city of Antwerp.
In the mFund project GrenzFlug the city of Aachen and the RWTH Aachen successfully demonstrated a cross-border rescue-operation using a eVTOL system from flyXdrive in the border region between Germany and the Netherlands using U-space services like network identification and traffic information.
2021: SAFIR-Med is launched, building on the previous rich experiences in order to demonstrating viable U-space services and capabilities, the new Horizon 2020 (SESAR JU VLD2) project will specifically demonstrate medical use cases and explore the higher level #Uspace services, promoting the next level of airspace architectures.