One small landing for a drone…

One giant touchdown for mankind? The first drone landing took place on the vertiport of Future Mobility Park (FMP) last Wednesday. One of the driving forces behind this landing platform and our in-house drone expert is Robin Provilij. A great opportunity to talk to him about this project and his love for everything that flies.

Robin once dreamed of becoming an airline pilot, but became more interested in the technical aspects of aircraft rather than the occupation of flying them. In 2014, he also had a revelation about the future of drones.

“Much like the human immune system acts to safeguard our health by detecting potential issues, drones in the future could serve as watchful caretakers of our infrastructure by spotting signs of wear and helping to extend the lifespan of our built environment.”

Galileo-port M4H

And now it’s all coming together with the vertiport at FMP. “Galileo M4H is a fixed platform on which any drone can land, and it is the first of its kind in the Netherlands. Drones can land pretty much anywhere so it’s not very special now, but in the future, the management of these landings will be.”

Robin’s eyes gently lighten up. “Imagine the skies of the future. One of the most common applications of drones has to do with the inspection of infrastructure. Think about bridges, wind turbines, power lines. In the future, they will also be used for that but in much more efficient, automated ways.”.

He stares into the depths for a moment and the flying drones can be seen in the reflection of his eyes. “Considering BVLOS [beyond visual line of sight] flights, vertiports will be essential facilitators, especially if the platform itself is more than only a space to take-off from and land on. That’s why now we want to focus on two things. Being able to reserve a landing platform and being able to charge drones.”

Vertiports that charge

“Suppose that a drone service provider in Delft is tasked to carry out an inspection in Rotterdam where a small quadcopter is needed” as Robin begins to explain the importance of bookable and charging-enabled vertiports. “Part of your planning should involve making sure there is a spot for your drone to land on close to the destination, so you reserve one for however long it takes to recharge the drone, or for the duration of the mission.”

In his vision of the future, there exists a network of fixed and mobile vertiports. “If we place urban air mobility aside for a moment, most fixed vertipads will mainly be placed on rooftops and not on ground level, whereas mobile vertiports can enable priority inspections as well as those in rural areas.”

Robin with the just landed first drone at the Galileo port M4H

This is why the vertiport at FMP will eventually have charging facilities enabled and be added to a reservation platform. “There is an identical vertiport at RDM, on the other side of the Nieuwe Maas. Together, they form the first operational drone corridor in the Netherlands where we would like to experiment with all sorts of drones, including people carriers.”

Innovative dreams

Not so fast. “Flying and landing are two different things. To fly in controlled airspace like here, around an airport, your drone should be registered, you must be certified, submit a flight plan, perform a risk assessment, maintain live-communication with ATC. The current barriers, certainly for BVLOS flights, are very high.” he continues.  And although there is still a lot of work for the regulations around autonomous cars Robin sees a lot of differences. “You could argue that it’s a bit odd though. The technology level for drones is high, they fly in open skies with barely any obstacles, and most will be small, lightweight, and unmanned. Yet, the regulations for teleoperation remains strict. On the other hand, autonomous cars that carry people drive through dense, unpredictable traffic, weigh several tons, and drivers are allowed to let the vehicle control itself. Seems over-cautious to me, but this is a problem that the U-space vision aims to solve.” 

The technology of vertiports is advancing. “There are drone-in-a-box solutions that can close in bad weather and recharge drones. The downside is that many of these solution providers have their proprietary drone that comes with it. I believe more in a universal solution and that we should start thinking about the standardization of charging methods.”

What about noise? “This and public acceptance is definitely a topic we want to research at FMP, using the Galileo corridor. Cars are quite noisy too though, electric or not. Picture standing next to a highway and compare that noise level to drones flying along a corridor 100-meters above you. I’m almost sure that cars would be louder.”

More things to come at FMP. “Maybe in the future we can expand the park and host drone races and other robotics challenges to inspire people and to show what is already possible. Seeing innovation come to life in this way is definitely a dream of mine.” 

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