WEF charts roadmap for Unmanned Traffic Management

That drones are here to stay is now fait accompli.

Amazing technology entrepreneurs have turned a technology that was a preserve of the military and turned it into a commercial product whose value for industry has soared in the past five years.

Countries with very poor or non-existent road networks to connect their communities have found some salvation in drone technology, which they have leveraged to transport medical supplies to remote areas.

The east African state of Rwanda and its hilly, undulating terrain and impassable roads during the rainy season quickly comes to mind. In 2016, the Rwandan government took the plunge and engaged the services of a then relatively unknown upcoming health delivery drone start-up called Zipline to embark on a pilot project to deliver important medical supplies like blood sachets to areas that would otherwise take forever to reach by road.

Four years and hundreds of thousands of kilometres or air miles later, it is suffice to say the rest is history. Zipline are the Africa trendsetters in a global delivery drone race that now includes giants like Amazon, Google and United Parcel Service (UPS).

(Thinking; how apt; a company called Zipline using its drones like an invisible zipline to connect the thousand hills dotted around Rwanda).

With the future of drone technology seemingly cast in stone now, the race to control the industry is now moving from overall drone sales, which Chinese manufacturer DJI has monopolised with nearly three out of every four drones purchased today bearing a DJI logo; to the control of specific channels along the drone value chain, two of which are drone delivery and Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM).

The race for the control of urban air mobility (UAM) has already seen companies like PrecisionHawk patenting their UTM technology in anticipation of a future where drones in urban areas are operating from a central command area which will be directing all air traffic.

But more concrete is the partnership between the World Economic Forum and the American city of Los Angeles, who have been working towards formulating building blocks for a policy road map which will eventually usher in seamless urban air mobility in the city, before the template is shared with other urban areas worldwide.

The Seven Principles of the Urban Sky

However, as we reported on Tuesday, Africa is not waiting for that, which German management consulting organisation Endeva calling for applications from drone technology entrepreneurs who have solutions to for urban air mobility to submit their pitches via Inclusive Innovation 2030 (ii2030) programme. The organisers have already conducted the first round of consultative meetings to find the best ways for the sustainable growth of the drone industry in Africa.

Their aim is to emerge with a pilot project to test by November this year.

The WEF/Los Angeles project is now running into its tenth month and, headlined by the Los Angeles Department of Transport (LADOT) and with the support of the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), it has come up with seven “Principles of the Urban Sky” which the project believes are important if the long term objectives of urban air mobility are to see the light of day.

“These principles aim to guide local policy-making and can be adapted as transport and societal expectations continue to evolve,” said the WEF in a report published on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. “They are representative of feedback from public and private interests gathered through direct interviews with leaders in the growing UAM space, workshops (including in-person and virtual) as well as on-going research with leading institutions worldwide.

“In coming months, the City of Los Angeles and the Forum will release a series of thought leadership pieces, which describe the ongoing collaboration to develop key components of an UAM policy road map. The next piece will illustrate what activities and milestones are anticipated within each distinct phase of UAM development, deployment and public participation in Los Angeles.

“Future articles will consider the key investments in physical and social infrastructure necessary to get UAM off the ground, logical roles and responsibilities for leading actors in this space, potential funding mechanisms and the impact of UAM on the city’s diverse workforce and job creation efforts.”

The forum hailed the growth of unmanned aerial systems technology as a step in the right direction, as far as urban transport is concerned, as progressive developments like vertical take-off and landing and sustainable energy sources are the ideal fit for today’s cities.

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