15 October 2022
The Upcoming U-space regulation: the relationship between Law and societal acceptance of Unmanned Aerial Systems within Urban Air Mobility
As of 26 of January 2023, the U-space regulation, i.e. regulation 2021/664, will become applicable in all 27 member states of the European Union. The U-space regulatory package of regulation 2021/664-666 is a welcome development alongside regulations 2019/947 and 945 which have already established some of the foundational building blocks of U-space such as Remote ID and UAS geographical zones. Undoubtedly, great technical strides have been and will be made within the field of UAS technology but, at this point in time, the integration of UAS into the urban environment remains largely experimental. To achieve advanced urban air mobility, where passengers and goods are transported by unmanned aerial vehicles in urban airspace at scale, one needs to look at a third prerequisite, which is that of societal acceptance and embracement.
We would like, therefore, not to focus on the technical aspects but on this last prerequisite and the drivers of it, while examining some examples reflecting the above within the U-space regulation and the SAFIR-Med project.
Photo by Ehang
Establishing and nurturing a relevant UAM ecosystem as a driver of societal acceptance
Although the term Urban Air Mobility (UAM) does not have a standard meaning and different entities use different definitions, it is generally accepted to refer to the low-level airspace above populated areas, whether this is intra-city, intercity (between cities), or between rural areas and cities, utilized by eVTOL aircraft transporting people and goods. The aim of this is not to replace traditional means of transportation but to enhance and integrate current transportation systems with a third dimension which is the urban airspace, revolutionizing the way airspace has traditionally been perceived and managed. This requires a major paradigm shift because traditional Air Law was developed for manned aviation and a distinct set of stakeholders, largely beyond the urban sky. Due to the current technological advances in UAS and the inherent nature of UAM, a number of novel but essential stakeholders have come into play. The European Commission and EASA have acknowledged this through Article 18(f) of regulation 2021/664. Said article calls for the competent authorities designated by the member states to establish a coordinating mechanism among authorities and entities - including at local level - for the determination of U-space airspace designation, restrictions, and services. Through the principles of institutional and procedural autonomy, member states have a broad discretion in choosing how they give useful effect to EU regulations. To-date, determining and establishing an all-inclusive or exhaustive stakeholders group within the coordinating mechanism remains an open matter. However, although the accepted means of compliance and guidance material articles have not been finalised by EASA as of yet, NPA 2021-14 which contains the proposed accepted means of compliance and guidance material articles as related to article 18 of regulation 2021/664 does propose a central role for authorities at a local level. This is what constitutes a novel concept within the UAM because up until now the regulation of airspace - at least formally - has been largely an exclusive national matter. For cities, municipalities, and regions, UAM will be an extension of their public space, providing mobility services to their citizens. It is therefore a logical step to decentralise the tasks and responsibilities to a local level. In addition, other key stakeholders have been identified in the latest literature (Andritsos & Agouridas, Wolters Kluwer 2022, 2nd ed.), which include a variety of entities ranging from supra-national, national and intergovernmental law and policymakers, to standardization bodies and unmanned aerial ecosystems. Determining all the components of a stakeholder group which will result in a safe, sufficient and sustainable Urban Air Mobility remains a complex task but it suffices to say that the latest SAFIR-Med events held in Antwerp and Aachen respectively presented an excellent representation of such a stakeholders group which is also mirrored in the current state-of-the-art literature (see Andritsos & Agouridas, Wolters Kluwer 2022, 2nd ed.).
Additionally to establishing the above coordinating mechanism ensuring security and further sustainable UAM operations, being in turn a driver for social acceptance, inclusivity has been identified by said academics and leading figures as another element serving as a prerequisite for such an embracement. In this context, UAM can improve the daily lives of citizens and serve the common public good, not only a fortunate few. The healthcare sector is undoubtedly a field where benefits can be early realised and address crucial issues of the society at large by delivering on-demand medical services as demonstrated under SAFIR-Med.
By Adriaan Wiese,
Hellenic U-Space Institute