Mobility: with European projects and NRRP opportunities, Deep Blue’s Human-Centred approach

Mobility: with European projects and NRRP opportunities, Deep Blue’s Human-Centred approach

Drones and flying taxis in cities: it’s important to have this conversation

At the beginning of July, Enac (the Italian Civil Aviation Authority) and the Lazio Region signed an agreement to make the transport of drugs, plasma, organs, and medical devices by means of drones operational in the region beginning in 2023. This project is part of Enac’s broader strategy on advanced air mobility, i.e. the development of services and operations for the transport of goods and people by aircraft, with and without a pilot, equipped with different levels of autonomy. 

According to Alessandra Tedeschi, Director of Research and Development at Deep Blue, “there is no doubt that drones will soon fly numerous over our heads (Alessio Quaranta, the director general of Enac, has stated that there will be over seven million in 2050). A survey carried out for our project Drive2TheFuture showed that Italians fear drones might ‘fall on us’, while in Germany, for example, fears mainly concern privacy: could cameras be mounted on the drones for spying on citizens?”. 

Our experience as experts in Human Factors,” Tedeschi says, “teaches us that in dealing with drones and in general with any technological or service-related innovation, especially in the mobility sector that impacts us all, it is very important to assess social acceptance: how will the novelty be received by people? How can we help acceptance? We can do this, for example, through good communication or by involving citizens when there are more options to choose from; the latter is an engagement strategy that undoubtedly pays off in terms of successful introduction of new services or technologies”.

In Drive2TheFuture, a project funded by the European Union with the Horizon 2020 innovation programme, Deep Blue has been working precisely on assessing the social acceptance by the public of the use of drones in the civil sector for a variety of services, from environmental monitoring to freight transport. Another project on drones, the European SESAR project EALU-AER, will start in early 2023 with the aim to study innovative technological solutions for the management of unmanned flights and their integration into the air traffic management system. “Deep Blue is among the project partners. We will work not only on identifying the safest solutions among the ones proposed, in accordance with European regulations, but also on improving communication precisely with the aim for increasing social acceptance”. 


Bringing the European experience to Italy

Among other countries, Italy is also looking to drones, and in general to Urban Air Mobility (a very short-range, low-altitude air mobility that should decongest city traffic). Last year Enac, Enav (the national flight assistance company) and Aeroporti di Roma, the company that manages the Fiumicino and Ciampino airports, signed an agreement to cooperate aimed at developing new services, technologies, and infrastructures for urban air mobility.

“The agreement will be implemented through projects financed with NRRP funds. The primary objectives are the development of technologies and new operational concepts for urban transport of people and goods with sustainable and, specifically, remotely piloted or autonomous aircraft” Simona Turco, Head of Business Development at Deep Blue, explains. “In this field, the European experience gained in the field of air traffic management and in the drone sector by many Italian SMEs, including Deep Blue, can be valuable in terms of analysis of operational concepts, safety, human performance, social acceptance and regulations”.

Aside from drones, all European mobility projects can be scaled up in national contexts. The primary aim is to adapt them to specific physical (geographical) territorial traits and to specific needs of the population. With regard to the latter, the contribution of Human Factors is crucial, Turco emphasises: “In general, Human Factors experts study how the introduction of technological innovation impacts humans, but also how humans use and manage this innovation, how it can be made more effective and easier to use. The design of mobility tools shares the same approach”. This is something to bear in mind especially in Italy, a country still lagging behind other European countries on issues of mobility and human factors. But we can catch up also thanks to the opportunities offered by the NRRP. 


NRRP: sustainable mobility, digitalisation and Smart Cities

Thanks to the National Recovery and Resilience Plan investment package, the National Centre for Sustainable Mobility has been created, with the allocation of almost 400 million euros over three years to achieve the green and digital transition of air, rail, sea and river, road, light and active mobility. Digitalisation is the key to regenerating the entire transport system, also making it environmentally sustainable, starting with urban centres that should thus become ‘smart’. “The much talked about Smart Cities are cities that have digitalised or are digitalising operational structures and transport systems in order to enhance efficiency and to improve the quality of life for citizens”, Turco explains. “In transport, digitisation is fundamental. Digital technologies allow better mobility management by the public administration or by transport companies, for example by providing real-time data on traffic disruptions so that traffic can be reorganised quickly and efficiently, while also implementing criteria for optimisation, prioritisation and decision making, based on Artificial Intelligence”.

Digital innovation also transforms infrastructures: through sensors and the Internet of Things (tools that provide data on the ground), smart roads communicate with vehicles and allow them to communicate with each other. “From the user’s point of view, which is what we are most interested in at Deep Blue – Turco continues – digitisation and automation are the prerequisites for intermodal mobility, i.e. integrating different means of transport to optimise time and routes. Intermodality is an integral part of Mobility as a service (MaaS), that is a system integrating multiple public and private transport services accessible to the end user through a single digital channel”. Imagine, for example, a Google Map that not only provides the best combination of means of transport at a given time, but also allows to buy and pay for a single integrated ticket. 

Intermodal mobility is the focus of the ORCHESTRA European project funded within the Horizon 2020 programme. The goal of the project partners is to identify and test new solutions for better managing the traffic of people and goods between different means of transport (road, rail, air and sea). They will evaluate the effectiveness of systems that monitor and share real-time traffic data in order to avoid interruptions and delays in transport flows, for example by rerouting road traffic in case of congestion or proposing alternative solutions to passengers with cancelled flights or trains. According to Alessandra Tedeschi “The objective of Mobility as a Service is to put passengers at the centre of transport services, offering them integrated mobility solutions based on their individual preferences and needs”. Deep Blue is one of the partners in the project. “MaaS will allow users to coordinate and make optimal use of all the means of transport available in an area (from car and bike sharing to trains and planes) to offer multimodal routes optimised in real time according to user-defined parameters”. In addition to providing service advantages to users, integrated mobility eases transport systems’ environmental impact, both because it envisages shared and increasingly electrified solutions and means of transport, and because it reduces congestion, accidents and disasters by ensuring a better distribution of traffic (thus also increasing safety). 


Deep Blue’s commitment

In Italy, says Turco, “Deep Blue is working together with companies, universities and research centres for the creation of partnerships focusing on mobility to support both public administration and citizens. There are many opportunities, for example tenders awarded by the Ministry of economic development and by the Digital Italy Agency, some of them linked to PNRR funds, dedicated to ‘intelligent’ mobility. Our attempt, through these projects, is to shift the perspective, using our expertise on Human Factors as a crucial input for those dealing with the design and implementation of mobility systems according to the needs of users, such as frail citizens, the elderly, women. Operationally, this means performing initial analyses to understand to whom a certain service can be addressed, then defining use cases (with interviews and surveys), thus assessing the requirements to be included in the design and implementation of the service”.

The first step might be the interface in case of services requiring a new application. “It must be comprehensible, intuitive, easy to use”, Tedeschi adds, “otherwise, no matter how useful and innovative the proposed service is, it risks not being used. Deep Blue has dealt with this specific aspect in the INDIMO project on inclusiveness in digital mobility services, where we focused especially on certain ‘vulnerable’ categories such as elderly and disabled people, women and migrants, focusing on needs, capabilities and possibilities in order to propose truly inclusive solutions”.

Usability is fundamental to ensure that a new technology and new services are used by people, but there are also other aspects that determine its success such as the degree of novelty compared to the old technology – that is how much it disrupts habits – and the costs. “In recent years we are beginning to talk about behavioural economics, a concept widely used in marketing but which can also be transferred to other areas such as mobility”, Turco explains. “The aim is to understand how to engage users, how to get them to ‘convert’ to a new service because they acknowledge and share the benefits for themselves and for the community, even if the service is different from their usual one, even if it costs more. Without engagement, the will and the awareness that using certain tools provides added value, there is a risk that new services will not be used, resulting in a great waste of time and resources

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