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Operating in Aerial Cities: Authorisations, Enablers and Roadblocks of drone operations in cities

Lorenzo Murzilli, CEO and Co-Founder of Murzilli Consulting moderated this fascinating panel on the realities of operating on aerial cities. 

Lorenzo was joined by Dominik Janisch, UTM Coordinator, Austro Control, Enda Walsh, UAS Manager at Irish Aviation Authority, Dr. Analiza Abdilla, Inspector at the Civil Aviation Authority in Malta and Justin Steinke, Senior Vice President Commercial Business, Spright. 

Throughout the session, the panellists discuss the roadblocks and challenges of operating in aerial cities, insights on what the industry needs to thrive, and lessons learned from their shared vast experiences within the drone industry and beyond.

Moving from proof of concept to profitable and practical drone operations 

Lorenzo asked the panel about the transition from the proof of concept phase, to beginning flying for real, “over people and in controlled airspace”. 

Enda outlined how the Irish Aviation Authority were about to issue a set of SAIL III to Manna, allowing for BVLOS operations over suburban areas. 

Discussing the relationship between drone regulators, operators and manufacturers, Enda explained that though compliance with regulations has been a blocker for industry operators, his experience has shown that manufacturers are also struggling to keep up. 

“You have the SHEPHERD project, again looking at industry standards, trying to identify it for operators. So that’s the regulator trying to support you, trying to come back and say okay, the regulator says X, Y and Z standard. We’ve looked at them and these are the best ones. And trying to engage with manufacturers then to say, look, will you please test your equipment and make compliance so we can start pushing the industry along?”

The benefits of issuing Light UAS Operator Certificates (LUC) to facilitate city drone operations

Transport Malta issued their first LUC to Swiss Drones, who have offices based in Malta, in 2022, allowing them to self-authorise flight operations, including beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) within the limits of the certificate. 

Speaking on Malta’s experiences of issuing LUCs, Analiza explained how she believes LUCs are important for drone operators as it allows them the privilege to authorise their own risk assessments up to the SAIL level provided, in this instance SAIL II. 

Direction from EASA dictated that levels of privileges should be flexible based on an operator's experience. Analiza detailed: “If they have no operational experience, even if for example, the employees already have experience in other aviation roles, but if the company per se does not have sufficient operational experience, then you should issue with no privilege and increase them as you gain confidence in the operations of the operator.”

Aside from operational experience, Analiza outlined that the management system is also an important factor in granting an LUC. Authorities can gauge how serious operators are based on the quality of documentation, and if they are operating in line with what they have stated in their manuals.

How can we improve the vision of opening airspace for drone operators? 

After tackling the questions surrounding ground risk, Lorenzo asked Dominik on the topic of airspace, and how we can move towards allowing drone operators to fly into airspace. 

Dominik begins by addressing the need for digital infrastructure to facilitate the scaling of operations. He outlines the need to “provide the necessary information in order for operators to make more ad hoc assessments, or at least base them on the same ground so that you can reduce both your ground and air risk based on digital data.”

To get such an ecosystem to work at scale, it is less about the u-space/UTM debate, but instead a case of getting everybody on board and aligned, Dominik suggested. 

Dominik commented: “For us, this is a really incremental approach, and we said okay, we have this vision, it aligned with where we want to go, the full integration of both drones and the traditional aviation that we have. But let's first have a look at what the current challenges are to even get us what I was saying before, from this level to the starting point where U-space really starts to make sense.” 

With this in mind, Austro Control has been focussing on taking the load off the air traffic control for the flight authorisation. Drone authorisations were done through phone calls, which was disturbing to the air traffic controllers. Now, they are digitising the process and getting people used to submitting flight plans and understanding the level of professionalism which is necessary to be operating within an ATM environment.

How is the city intervening, influencing, shaping or prohibiting drone operations? 

When asked about the city’s roles in shaping drone operations, Justin identified that at Spright, an important challenge is ensuring they are a good bridge between the city in question and the CAA. 

Justin spoke of a client in Germany who flies tissue samples from a tumour and delivers them to a pathologist. From an authorisation perspective, these flights are relatively simple, as they are pre-scheduled. 

The issue is, Justin addressed, “If we can’t get the sample thereby drone, there is no other way to do it. And that’s the hardest thing. So the city is relying on this technology to be able to make this happen, and it also accounts for 50% of the revenue for that hospital.”

So here, we see the operator act as a line of communication between the city and CAA, outlining that without approval of operation, there are going to be financial consequences to the city. 

Enda built on Justin’s point by saying, that while it is great that operators are offering to bridge that gap, the regulators need to be communicating directly with cities themselves. Speaking on his experience at the Irish Aviation Authority, they have been working with Dublin City Council on drone innovation. 

“We’re now entering a partnership with Dublin City Council on drone innovation, looking at how we can develop policy hand in hand with the city on looking at their planning cycle, for example, and looking at Vertiports and how we should implement geo zones for noise and privacy. So we're not doing this in isolation, we're going hand in hand with local government, and that's essential.”

Are you a decision-maker?

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