This article was originally published on DomusAir n.3, dicembre 2021.
The kernel of the question is clear: in order to take a true leap ahead — technological, industrial, but also social —, ingenious technology or a game-changing enterprise capable of making a breakthrough is not enough. The new frontier of Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) — a system of innovative transport services provided in an intermodal framework with electrical air travel systems mainly using Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) mode, with or without pilots on board (Unmanned Aerial System – UAS, including so-called drones) or fully autonomous, combined with the necessary infrastructure and regulatory framework — can only become a reality via action of an entire system. In other words, it can only be achieved if this grand and fascinating realm of action transforms into a collaborative ecosystem with a clear purpose and clearly defined roles of the various actors. Regarding Advanced Air Mobility, Italy, traditionally a country where individuality wins and being part of a system has always been difficult, is off the blocks early and has various industrial and technological assets of excellence to bring into play. The most complicated task, that of using these actors into a well structured, effectively governed system, falls to the Italian Civil Aviation Authority, ENAC.
The rapidity with which this innovative thrust is being pushed forward is evident in the timeline of accomplished items, and in those that will mark the process from here to 2030. With extreme pragmatism, in December 2019, ENAC, and the Ministry of Technological Innovation and Digital Transition signed a memorandum of understanding “with the objective of initiating a process of development of the Italian eco- system for Advanced Air Mobility”. The process began then and has continued through the Covid emergency. Work began in July 2020 on a detailed project roadmap, whose first step regarded the choice of “use concepts” (“concetti d’uso”, technically CONUSE), i.e., the various applications that will regard AAM: drones for support in agriculture, drones for inspection and mapping, drones for goods and biomedical materials transport, and, lastly, the most exciting and awaited application, air taxis, new generation aircraft to transport people, with or without a pilot, in urban and extra-urban areas. This is one of the most visionary contemporary dreams. It represents a revolution in the entire concept of mobility as we have imagined it so far, and is quickly becoming reality.
But making something real can be a bit more complex than dreaming it. The roadmap has thus lined up all the complex challenges to making this scenario a possibility: regulation (which also means security) of this new air traffic; development of the infrastructure network; public acceptance; technological development; and — last but not least — the need to procure necessary funding, public and private, to develop an advanced AAM system.
Concretely addressing this broad spectrum of activity is a voluminous Strategic Plan developed by ENAC and formally announced in 2021. It serves as a policy and implementation instrument for all the public and private initiatives necessary for the creation of the national AAM ecosystem. The vision driving the Italian Plan is unambiguous and ambitious: “Make available to the country an integrated and intermodal model of urban air mobility that provides advanced services to individuals, businesses, and institutions and responds to the needs of geographical communities within the framework of digital and ecological transition, standing as a point of reference in the international context”, states the document. This means making available to the country an integrated and intermodal Advanced Air Mobility model that provides advanced and sustainable services to all individuals, businesses, and institutions and responds to the needs of geographical communities within the framework of digital and ecological transition, standing as a point of reference in the international context. A new mobility model that is not superimposed over the existing system, but integrates into it and resolves its issues (for example, urban traffic congestion and related environmental impact). One that is also capable of evolving in collaboration with all the actors in the ecosystem “who will be involved in the creation of an integrated infrastructure network, exploiting currently existing infrastructure, and the development of vehicles and technologies”.
In introducing the Strategic Plan, ENAC President, Pierluigi Di Palma stated, “The great challenge of the third millennium will be to guide innovation and the spread of associated digital instruments toward the resolution of the great issues facing contemporary societies, such as urbanization, pollution, climate change, and inequality. The urban mobility of goods and people and associated outgrowth industries are going through a momentous change that will lead to the gradual implementation of new, integrated, intermodal models of smart mobility, both air and ground, that allow the development of innovative and environmentally sustainable solutions that open up possibilities of new business scenarios for mobility as a service. The vision is to deliver integrated, intermodal urban air mobility combining imagination, design capacity, and concreteness to the new generations in a more modern country in an increasingly European context.”
To give the Strategic Plan “legs to walk on”, the task force instituted by ENAC and the Ministry has also developed a business plan that has achieved two fundamental results in terms of financial planning for the subsequent activities. Firstly, the investments necessary to implement the National Strategic Plan were estimated: 1.8 billion euros for all the investment envisaged in the roadmap from 2021 to 2030, including testing and demonstration, the development of vehicles and technologies by Italian industry, and lastly the creation of an infrastructure network sufficient to implement Advanced Air Mobility services in the principal Italian cities. Then, the benefits that these investments will produce were outlined, estimating the positive impacts on the national level, both in terms of added value (approx. 2.8 billion euros) and additional jobs (approx. 50,000).
The steps provided in the Plan will unfold on a very strict timeline, with the idea of beginning tests and demonstrations of the selected applications in certain target cities in Italy that have major public events on their calendars (for example the 2024 Jubilee and the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Olympics). The future? It’s practically tomorrow!
Opening image: the design concept by the studio Gannett Fleming for the Uber Elevate Skyport Challenge, an idea of an intermodal urban hub
with take-off and landing pad for passenger transport drones.