A Deeper Insight into the Environmental Impact of Urban Air Mobility Operations
Jan 08, 2021
9 min read
“Understanding the environmental impact of those new technologies can change the rules of the game”
In recent years, the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) concept is considered to be one of the most innovative developments in aerospace industry, introducing different types of Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) aircrafts and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), all developed for the purpose of transporting passengers or cargo-carrying services. As we are still in a transition period of full UAM operations, stakeholders need to be prepared to encourage positive environmental outcomes. Though UAVs notably consume less fuel and consequently have a smaller impact on the environment, with increasing operations, they will certainly have an impact on the environment, so there is need for real evaluation and professional assessment. Doing this right can help public and private decision makers facing energy and environmental choices in the infancy of this commercial UAV age.
Many concerns already exist for this new airbourne mode. For example: noise emissions, possible collisions with other drones in the air space, structure of the logistics system in which they are employed and for example if they are used for package delivery, is the energy consumed per mass of package delivered in a more efficient way compared to traditional delivery methods?
In addition to all these environmental concerns, UAV parts production has contributed to significant impacts on the environment that also has to be taken into consideration by carrying out a full life cycle analysis (LCA).
Envisa’s core business is understanding and analysing the environmental impacts of aviation. Its aviation and environmental experts have for many years been doing environmental impact assessments for airports and institutional clients (EASA, EUROCONTROL, EU). Envisa sees a great potential to society in the introduction of UAM in cities and hence has decided to diversify its services into the environmental impact assessment on UAM operations and understanding its balanced development and integration with all other transport modes.
Benefits of UAM Operations
Before going into the details of the challenges that come with UAM, it is worth acknowledging the great developments and benefits that UAM services can bring to urban areas. Looking at urban life today, with the increase in urban population, transportation services of goods or cargo and the usually congested traffic by the daily commuting of people, there is really need for public to accept the introduction of UAM. This acceptance will be achieved by making people aware of the many societal benefits that are associated with the UAM operations.
Urban Air Mobility operations in cities will reduce traffic congestion, reduce transportation duration/emergency response time, increase range of access to the urban area, increase additional disaster response capabilities and guarantee high levels of safety. Furthermore, the use of electric Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) will greatly promote the reduction in CO2 emissions and their introduction will bring about workforce development and economic opportunities.
Challenges to this vision of UAM
One major obstacle to note is with the increase in traffic there is a high risk of collisions. However thanks to the recent research, real-time detection and localisation aims to minimise those collisions. Also helping to overcome these challenges are the regulations focusing on ATM aspects. In Europe, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has published first rules for safe drone operations view worldwide on the use and control of drones in an urban environment.
This view aims to ensure safe operations, while also creating the basis for a competitive U-space services market, and establishing a level of environmental protection, security and privacy that is acceptable to the public.
Noise, of course, is another challenge to be overcome and this too is being looked into by researchers studying and improving various types of drones. These technology advances may help to reduce noise footprints significantly, for example by optimising UAV rotors and fixed wing design
However, even if an aerial taxi could be made silent (or at least imperceptible from the ground) there may be a possibility that the residents may object to the ‘visual pollution’ of aerial taxis frequently whizzing over their back yard at low level. Here, issues of privacy and safety concerns also have to be addressed, in case of a UAV collision, people and infrastructure are at high risk of injury and damage respectively.
UAS swarms especially in regards to UAM “frequency pollution”, are the next big security challenge in airspace security and local authorities in areas of operation will be extremely sensitive to this.
A good environmental analysis in this regard, will also take a look at energy efficiency aspect of the operations. In the case of package delivery, will the energy consumed per mass of package delivered be a more efficient choice compared to traditional delivery methods? This has to be assessed.
The number of times batteries require recharging might be another challenge, though thanks to technology innovations, we might confidently expect solutions to this in the future..
Due to these social and environmental challenges it is also feared that the introduction of UAM may not be well accepted by the public. This is the main reason why an in-depth environmental and social assessment of these UAM operations is necessary, to clarify and assure the public that all concerns have been looked into.
In-depth Environmental Impact Analysis of UAM Operations and their interaction with other modes of Transport.
Envisa can help demonstrate how UAM’s can effectively integrate into the current ATM and competing logistics infrastructure. We have methodologies and tools adapted to the assessment of the UAM’s impact on the environment. We understand how the current ATM infrastructure works.
Assessment areas may include:
- Energy efficiency Analysis: Energy efficiency estimates will be made by fuel types used, with respect to the UAV types and the other modes of delivery transport. The consumption of energy will also be evaluated for instance by calculating an energy consumption value for the functional unit of 1 package being delivered per Km and the energy used by the vehicle is then normalized for the number of packages the vehicle is carrying and delivering per Km. This data will then be used to develop a bottom-up Total Energy use Model. Then, depending on the data available, a Full Life Cycle Analysis can also be carried out, where the energy use and impacts of any additional product warehousing will be considered. The choice of battery or energy storage media will also be taken into account since this substantially affects the delivery range and environmental impact of UAVs.
- Logistics System Structure Analysis: Understanding the UAVs’ network paths and how they interact with topography/structure underlying the pathways. With this in mind, several visions will be analysed taking into consideration different factors of public concern and benefits of UAM. Different realistic scenarios will be developed for other transport modes and drone types to compare impacts among drones and traditional delivery methods. From this analysis the most adaptive interactive maps will be developed.
- GHG emissions Calculations: (if applicable) the UAV life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be categorized and compared with other delivery transport modes’ emissions. Here the frequency of flights over a respective period of time can also be taken into consideration. This coupled with the energy usage data, will help develop KPIs for high quality monitoring of the UAM operations.
- Noise Pollution Analysis: With operational drones’ aero acoustic data, both quantitative and qualitative data representations will be made such as noise intensity contour maps in areas of UAM operation.
- Social Impact Analysis: This will basically take into consideration of human factors such as environmental consequences to the public through increased emissions and noise pollution, and consequences to passengers. Safety concerns and operation in the tightest airspaces will be taken in account and many other social aspects.