Boosting the economy, strengthening the industrial sector, consolidating world leadership. These are the reasons why Europe is investing in drones: the Commission explains this clearly in its 2015 Aviation Strategy for Europe.      


By 2022, 35 million drones are expected to be in the air, 25 per cent of them in European skies. Urban Air Mobility services and the transport of goods and passengers are likely to see the greatest development. However, remotely piloted aircraft (unmanned aerial vehicles) will be used for much more: emergency medical assistance, environmental monitoring, mapping, precision agriculture, transport infrastructure inspection.  



The use of drones for structural inspections of roads, bridges and railways is an attractive solution. First of all, it optimises time and costs (it saves an estimated 15 billion EUR per year). Not only does it lower the risks for human operators, it is also more sustainable, as at present these operations often require the use of helicopters. Europe believes strongly in the potential of this field of application for remotely piloted aircraft, in which it is investing through the funding of research and innovation projects.  



At present, individual drones are already being used to check the safety of transport infrastructure. The real innovation will come from so-called drone’s swarms.


“Imagine a ‘swarm’ of drones equipped with an intelligence that holds them together, but capable of acting autonomously, i.e. splitting up to inspect different parts of the infrastructure, recognising and analysing specific features, e.g. cracks. Imagine also that these drones are capable of recharging themselves by hooking up to power lines or railways, so as to maximise the duration of inspection operations. The Drones4Safety project will develop and verify the feasibility and efficiency of these systems,” Damiano Taurino explains, Project Manager in Research & Development at Deep Blue, who is in charge of dissemination for the project.  


Funded under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, Drones4Safety is coordinated by the University of Southern Denmark. The first pilot studies, scheduled for 2022, will however be carried out on Italian railways. With two major challenges. 

The first will be implementing energy harvesting, i.e. equipping drones with devices to absorb energy from power lines. According to preliminary studies of the project, 70 per cent of European bridges have high-voltage cables within a three-kilometre radius. Therefore, the drones will use data obtained from maps and satellites to locate them and go and supply themselves. 

The second will involve the development of algorithms that allow drones to ‘talk to each other’ and improve their ability to analyse the structural characteristics of infrastructure.  



Between mapping and surveillance operations, it is estimated that 180,000 drones will fly in 2035 (European Drones Outlook Study 2016 data). The whole market for remotely piloted aircraft is set to grow, in terms of fleet and revenue: the European study forecasts annual growth of EUR 10 billion by 2035. In order to keep up and be able to manage the traffic, last year the European Commission approved the new EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) drone regulation to which EU member states have to comply since 1 January 2021.

The regulation lays down the rules to be observed when operating drones, defined according to the risk of the operations themselves. Identifying the technical standards (the technological requirements of drones) and operational standards (the procedures for flying them) that meet the regulation’s requirements is the task of AW-Drones, another Horizon 2020 European project. It brings together 13 partners co-ordinated by Deep Blue, which together with EuroUSC represents the Italian share of the project, also covered by the Italian newspaper Repubblica



Today, drones can only fly in spaces separated from the rest of civil air traffic. In order to integrate these spaces, pilots will have to, among other things, adopt a system whereby they ‘see and avoid’ other aircraft in flight, to keep at a safe distance and avoid having to perform anti-collision manoeuvres.


“The ability of a pilot to stay at a distance from the rest of the air traffic is defined as ‘remain well clear’. Despite help from technology, pilots operate mainly using their sight,” Taurino points out. “It is clear that in the case of drones, it is necessary to combine technical capabilities (sensors, radar and cameras to ‘read’ the environment surrounding them) with ‘decision-making’ capabilities that allow them to receive, process information and make decisions autonomously in the event of critical or conflict situations.” 



The integration of these two aspects will be the task of a project funded by SESAR, the EU exploratory and industrial research programme set up to revise the European airspace and its traffic management system. Its name is URClearED, it is coordinated by the Italian Centro Italiano Ricerche Aerospaziali (CIRA), with Deep Blue in charge of dissemination.


“In airspace, where an air traffic control service is provided, the concept of ‘well clear’ means a distance of five miles horizontally and 1000 feet vertically. In uncontrolled airspace this is different. That is why with URClearED we will work on a formal definition of the concept, especially with regard to drones.” 

To analyse different operational scenarios, test performance and safety of operations, Fast-Time and Real-Time simulations will be conducted. In the first case, software models are used to simulate the behaviour of an entire system. In the second, aircraft pilots and air traffic controllers will operate in a simulated environment that is very similar to the operational environment, just like in flight simulators. This will also make it possible to understand how the new tools and procedures will change the work of human operators, how efficiently they will work, and whether this will involve more cognitive effort or stress. 



The procedures developed by the INVIRCAT project will also be validated in a controlled environment, i.e. with Fast and Real-Time simulations. Coordinated by the German space agency Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, this project is also funded by the SESAR programme. 


“In this case we are moving into the super-controlled space of the so-called terminal control areas or TMAs in the vicinity of airports, where pilots initiate a whole series of operations, for example lowering flight altitude or reducing speed, in preparation for landing. Seven partners are taking part in the project, including the Italian Deep Blue, CIRA and the Institute for Sustainable Society and Innovation. What we are going to do is develop procedures for integrating drone flight in these terminal manoeuvring areas, validate them with simulations, and translate the results into recommendations to be passed on to policymakers.” 


The SESAR projects look to the near future of aviation. Today, what is being mainly discussed are the rules for flying drones in urban spaces, at a maximum altitude of 500 feet, a space that is clearly distinct from that of civil aviation. However, by 2050, Europe wants to integrate remotely piloted aircraft for cargo and passenger transport into controlled and uncontrolled airspace. To achieve this, both technological innovations and new procedures to operate safely will be needed.


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