Robotics

Making drones suitable for cities

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With drone technology far more advanced, the next step is to ensure they can fly safely over cities. Image credit: CC0 via Unsplash

The resort town of Benidorm in Spain is famous for its sandy beaches with crystal clear waters, the skyline of which is dominated by soaring hotels and tourists from northern Europe. But one day in February, it also served as a testing ground for the European community’s future with drones.

Since the local economy depends on tourism during the summer, Benidorm is relatively empty in the winter – and that’s a plus in terms of safety when testing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The tall buildings that dominate the skyline also stand out nicely for a big city.

Sun, sea and… satellite signals

In short, it’s an ideal place to try out new drone technology. And the EU-funded project is called DELOREAN has done so – tested a new type of satellite tracking for drones on February 9.

“The Benidorm skyline is very similar to what you’d find in big cities like, say, New York,” says Santiago Soley, project coordinator and CEO of Spanish aerospace engineering firm Pildo Labs. ‘Generally, regulations limit drone flying in dense urban areas. This is the first time in Europe that we have conducted this intensive test in a challenging city environment.’

Drones have been a hyped technology for years, with the media popularizing predictions that they will soon be used for all kinds of everyday services including delivering packages to people’s doorsteps. But so far, widespread civilian use has failed to take off.

The hurdles are safety and the need to demonstrate to municipalities that drones can be operated in large numbers in populated areas without causing harm. If the UAV crashes into a busy road or into an aircraft that is landing or taking off, the result can be severe damage or even death.

“Drone technology is getting there.”

– Santiago Soley, DELOREAN

Scientists and companies are now tackling this problem – and the experiments in Benidorm may hold the key to drone success in the future.

“Drone technology is advancing – it’s the least of our problems,” says Soley. “What’s more important is demonstrating how drones will be deployed safely in cities.”

DELOREAN ended after three years. Its main goal is to develop navigation and positioning requirements for urban air services and show how the European Global Navigation Satellite System, or EGNSS, can help.

Non-GPS option

Drones need to know exactly where they are at all times. To that end, UAVs currently rely on satellites, mostly the US Global Positioning System, or GPS. Another alternative to GPS is the European Galileo network.

DELOREAN is also testing the potential of the Galileo drone.

While being led by Pildo Labs, the project has featured an international consortium whose members include France-based aircraft manufacturer Airbus, Spanish postal service provider Correos and the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation, or Eurocontrol, in Belgium.

The challenge for satellite tracking in urban areas is that the signal may be deflected or obstructed by buildings. Galileo will help avoid such interference due to the waveform and structure of the signal, according to Soley.

In addition, Galileo pioneered a new service that can pinpoint the location of drones with greater accuracy – something that DELOREAN has already tested in Benidorm.

Next, Galileo added another layer of security. An authentication service that allows drones to verify whether a satellite signal is real will counter future criminal groups’ attempts to mislead UAVs and steal their contents through fake signals, according to Soley.

Delivery of packages by air

If such experiments conducted by DELOREAN prove successful, many applications could be opened.

“Before a business like urban airfreight can thrive, we first need safety.”

–Professor Luis Moreno Lorente, LABYRINTH

While drones are already being used in cities, they are often in small-scale operations by local authorities. Police departments, for example, use them to monitor crowds or track speeding cars.

“There are restrictions on drone flight and you have to cover the area,” Soley said. ‘However, on a technical level, flying is fairly easy to handle.’

The next step could be mass urban air delivery. No more vans zigzagging through city streets with all the traffic jams and pollution.

Instead, a fleet of drones will deliver packages all over the city. Companies like Amazons already launched this service in limited areas.

“Logistics, I think, is going to be one of the most promising uses of drones,” said Soley.

Airplane alone

EU-funded project called LABYRINE is tackling the challenge of ensuring that autonomous drones track each other.

ARQUIMEA drone being tested in Marugán, Segovia, Spain. © Labyrinth, 2023

Autonomous drones do not require a ground-based human pilot, which is generally required for the current generation of UAVs.

“In the future, such drones will be operated autonomously – they will fly on their own,” said Luis Moreno Lorente, project coordinator and a professor of systems and automation engineering at Carlos III Madrid University in Spain. “But if you want to do it safely, you need to know exactly where each one is.”

LABYRINTH, which will expire in May after three years, is developing software that acts as an air traffic control system for drones. The 3D position of each is tracked and the planes then relay this information to other drones in the vicinity so they don’t collide with each other.

Similarly, if a drone encounters a technical problem – say one of its motors fails – it must be able to steer other UAVs away from it.

‘Before a business like urban airfreight can thrive, we need safety first,’ says Moreno Lorente. “That’s what we’re building now.”

Together, LABYRINTH and DELOREAN help pave the way for a future where massive numbers of drones fly over cities.

“It’s only a matter of time before they do,” said Moreno Lorente.

Watch the video


This article was originally published on Horizon, EU Research and Innovation magazine.


Horizon Magazine brings you the latest news and features on thought-provoking science and innovative EU-funded research projects.

Horizon Magazine brings you the latest news and features on thought-provoking science and innovative EU-funded research projects.

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