From infrastructure control to the transportation of medical equipment, goods and (soon) also people. The future is now, and drones - while constantly evolving due to the considerable experimentation underway - have become a reality in Italy. The Chairman of the Italian Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC), Pierluigi di Palma, describes to Infra Journal the feasible future scenarios of this new “sustainable” form of mobility, in which ENAC is playing a leading role. Also because anyone currently wishing to engage in scientific experimentations with drones must first inform ENAC.
QUESTION. Is there a clear piece of legislation that stakeholders must comply with?
ANSWER. The beginning of this year saw the introduction of the European Drone Regulations which provide operations- and risk-based rules for drone operations. The higher the risk, both towards third parties on the ground and other aircraft in flight, the more stringent the requirements and the greater the need for technical investigations by the Authority. ENAC issues the relevant authorisations, and in the presence of low-risk operations we give the green light. But that’s not all. We basically play a dual role: the more traditional one of regulator and certifier, and that of driver for Italy’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or - as NASA classifies it - for its Advanced Air Mobility.
Q. What are the main experiments currently being conducted and in what areas?
A. There are two main areas of experimentation currently underway: providing urban citizens with an environmentally sustainable and efficient service for the distribution of goods, with definite advantages in terms of speed, reduced emissions and improved urban traffic; and facilitating healthcare through a widespread service for the transportation of emergency and biomedical equipment. In terms of the latter, experiments with the Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital in Rome have proved that biological material can be transported between the hospitals of Santa Marinella and Palo Laziale, standing more than 35 kilometres apart. Other initiatives involve controlling energy distribution infrastructure and rail or freight transport. But research never sleeps, and at the moment we have a number of projects underway for the transport of medicinal products in Bari, Venice and Naples.
Q. Is the transportation of people still a pipe dream?
A. It is a dream that will one day come true. Our vision is to be able to carry passengers between city sites and airport hubs. The first phase will require the presence of a pilot on board, while in the intermediate phase the pilot will be based on the ground in a control centre. The final phase, instead, will consist of totally autonomous Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), enabling passengers to set their destination with ease. In this regard, we at ENAC have taken a particularly active role, both nationally and internationally, in identifying the necessary regulatory requirements and technical standards. It is extremely indicative that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) should have selected a number of metropolitan areas in Europe, including Milan, Rome and Venice, to carry out a study on citizens’ acceptance of such means of transport.
Q. So can we say that the mobility revolution has begun?
A. Certainly: recent market research on mobility has shown that within the next ten years, the spread of digital technologies - and technological innovation in general - will radically change the face of the transport sector and its related industries. Drones are one of the cornerstones of this industrial revolution, as that they are set to become an increasing part of our daily lives. Also because their potential is enormous, starting with the possibility of using these innovative devices to operate in dangerous scenarios, to the benefit of human safety. Moreover, they can also carry out special operations, both in the public interest and in favour of large enterprises. The real challenge for lawmakers, if anything, will be to balance technological innovation, economic development and the protection needs of citizens and consumers.
Q. What are the current limits to the development of this new form of mobility?
A. The obstacles we are trying to overcome with targeted actions are primarily the energy storage capacity of batteries so as to enable drones to fly significant distances and for durations commensurate with business needs. Added to that is the ability to design safe drones that can carry people on board and withstand all environmental conditions, just like conventional aircraft, and the possibility of creating local integrated logistics systems so as to reduce maintenance costs. Also essential will be the availability of ground infrastructure such as vertiports and intermodal hubs across the country. To achieve this, it is essential to implement a drone traffic and low-altitude airspace control system (the so-called UTM or “U-Space”, editor’s note) with high AI-based automation capabilities requiring appropriate industry standards.
Q. A revolution driven by technology and advanced innovation therefore...
A. Automation and AI will play a key role in the future. The system will need to move towards the concept of “one-to-many”, with a single human operator controlling an entire fleet of drones that can fly simultaneously. But this will only be possible with the use of autonomous flight technologies and artificial intelligence - two areas in which ENAC is working non-stop.
Q. Will it be useful - or indeed necessary - to cooperate with the main players operating in the world of transport (airlines, motorway companies)?
A. Of course. ENAC aims to accompany the civil aviation sector’s digital and ecological transition through the development of smart, sustainable mobility solutions that exploit the third dimension, looking beyond traditional air transport and promoting the renewed economic and industrial growth of the national supply chain. The challenge must be addressed consistently, across the country. Just think, for example, about logistics and strategic infrastructure monitoring. In this regard, we have established close partnerships with a number of airport management companies (ADR, SEA and SAVE) and with local institutions playing an important role in terms of social acceptance and territorial planning.
Q. SEA has signed an agreement with a company that builds vertiports. ADR has launched an industrial partnership with Volocopter: “maxi drones” could arrive in Rome by 2024 and in Milan two years later. How do you feel about this?
A. Obviously, so-called air taxis are among the applications we are progressively planning towards, with these innovative, sustainable (electric) vehicles first requiring the presence of a pilot on board before achieving full automation. The challenge revolves around new vertiport requirements, new operational concepts, and both security and cybersecurity issues, all of which we intend to address as quickly as possible.
Q. At a time when the aviation sector and its related industries are experiencing a time of great difficulty, how will drones impact employment in Italy?
A. This crisis has shown us that the country is experiencing an unprecedented need for recovery and resilience and that the government needs to leverage innovation and technology so as to promote industrial growth and consolidate Italy’s excellence in this field. Estimates suggest that the global market for advanced air mobility applications will reach approximately USD 55 billion by 2030, with an annual growth rate of around 18% over the period from 2021 to 2030. As to the impact of drones on employment, we estimate that around 114,700 new jobs will be created.