Cranfield University launches EU drone flight testing program


An EU project trialing the use of drones in urban environments has conducted the first in a series of test flights at Cranfield University in the UK.

The test flight  took place on 30 June and examined the feasibility of urban air mobility (UAM) management systems before more complex trials are run.

The six flight tests will also be conducted in the Netherlands and Spain as part of the EU project AMU-LED to assess ways of managing UAM airspace traffic and check safety, interoperability and feasibility.

Testing scenarios in urban environments

One of the key enablers for UAM in Europe is “U-space“, an air traffic management framework that will enable the safe and secure integration of drones. U-space is a set of specific services and procedures designed to ensure safe and efficient access to airspace for a large number of drones, based on high levels of digitalization and automation.

U-space is being developed through EU research projects. The AMU-LED project is a Very Large-scale Demonstration (VLD) project funded by the SESAR Joint Undertaking.

AMU-LED is demonstrating the safe integration of manned and unmanned aircraft through U-space, with the ultimate goal of realising increasingly sustainable smart cities. A key step towards this is performing flight demonstrations with various scenarios, situations and use cases in urban environments.

The project is using large electrical Vertical Take-off and Landing (eVTOL) platforms for passenger and cargo transport, combined with smaller Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) performing delivery of goods and medical supplies, surveillance or support for emergency services.

There will be six demonstrations, taking place throughout this summer, starting with Cranfield, UK; then in Amsterdam, Enschede and Rotterdam in the Netherlands and then Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The demonstrations will gather data which will be analyzed for the further development of U-space, providing information on the most efficient way for U-space to enable UAM, providing a safe, impactful and viable solution for smart cities.

Testing data exchange

The range of locations allows the project to test a variety of aspects, such as assessing the most efficient way to exchange information between actors, such as the drones, their pilots and the air traffic management system. The project will also test two different concepts for Unmanned Traffic Management architectures.

The information to be exchanged includes data such as strategic and tactical information prior and during the flight, tracking data including real time information about the position of the drone, advisory tactical deconfliction service such as information to avoid any conflicts prior to the flight and during the flight, and the provision of weather and Communication, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) data.

Highways in the skies

Gokhan Inalhan, professor of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence, is leading Cranfield University’s involvement in the project. He said, “The flight demonstrations will put into practice scenarios, concepts and systems developed throughout the project to test how drones and manned aircraft can operate safely in the same airspace.

“At Cranfield, we will be running virtual flights alongside the drones physically flying at the airport, to test their interactions and air traffic management systems including U-Space. Our results will help inform the later demonstrations and move forward the whole concept of Urban Air Mobility.

“This is a very exciting project and one that will pave the way for highways in the skies, removing traffic and congestion and changing the way we move around.”

Project ready for take-off

“After having carried out an impressive amount of work, where our consortium devised and implemented cutting edge concepts of operations for UAM, prepared futuristic yet round-the-corner use cases such as air commute shuttle or last-mile parcel delivery, and integrated innovative unmanned traffic management services, at last we are ready for take-off”, said Pablo Menéndez-Ponte Alonso, project leader UTM of NTT DATA Spain.

NTT DATA Spain is coordinating the European consortium of 17 different enitities that take part in the AMU-LED project.

“Cranfield is our first essential demonstration, as it will allow us to understand the readiness of this technology by confronting the actual challenge,” he added

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Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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