DRONESMaking Drones Suitable for Cities

By Tom Cassauwers

Published 11 April 2023

Unmanned aerial vehicles will make their way into urban skies only if the safety of people below can be ensured.

The Spanish resort town of Benidorm is known for its sandy beaches with clear waters, a skyline dominated by towering hotels and tourists from northern Europe. But one day in February, it also served as a testing ground for European society’s future with drones.

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

Sun, Sea and…Satellite Signals
In sum, it’s an ideal place to try out new drone technology. And an EU-funded project called DELOREAN has done just that – testing new types of satellite tracking for drones on 9 February.

‘Benidorm’s skyline is quite similar to what you would find in larger cities like, say, New York,’ said Santiago Soley, the project coordinator who is also chief executive officer of Spanish aeronautics-engineering company Pildo Labs. ‘Generally, regulations limit drone flights over dense urban areas. It’s the first time in Europe we did these intense tests in a challenging city environment.’

Drones have been a hyped technology for years, during which the media popularized predictions that such aircraft would soon be used for all kinds of daily services including delivering packages to people’s doorsteps. Yet so far, widespread civilian use has failed to take off.

The bottleneck is safety and the need to demonstrate to city governments that drones can be operated in large numbers in populated areas without being a hazard. If a UAV crashes onto a busy street or into a plane that’s landing or taking off, the result could be severe damage or even deaths.

Scientists and companies are now addressing these concerns – and the experiments in Benidorm might hold the key to the future success of drones.

‘Drone technology is getting there – it’s the least of our problems,’ said Soley. ‘What’s more important is to demonstrate how drones would safely be deployed over cities.’

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