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Passenger drone, made by Lilium, of the type that would be used Malaga. SUR
Malaga Airport prepares an air taxi service with pilotless drones

Malaga Airport prepares an air taxi service with pilotless drones

Test flights will start in mid-2025, still with a pilot, but the aim is to make them autonomous in the medium term

Iignacio Lillo

MALAGA.

Friday, 17 May 2024, 13:19

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Can you imagine being able to get from Malaga to Marbella in just 15 minutes aboard a pilotless air taxi? It sounds like Jules Verne science fiction, but in a few years this and many other journeys will be possible thanks to the use of passenger drones. In this futuristic scenario, Malaga airport is at the forefront of the development of new air mobility in Spain.

Enaire, the public company which manages air navigation in Spain, and Crida, its R+D subsidiary, had been looking for an airport to test this new technology, "and in Malaga we immediately raised our hand," said Raúl Delgado, head of the control tower, which is a pioneer in this and other fields of aeronautical research. "We have a team that loves aviation and we want to put the city in the place it deserves," he said.

The controllers of the Malaga tower are involved in two leading projects in Europe, the first of which is focused on studying the safe coexistence of traditional and new air navigation. This initiative is called Ensure, for the control of drone traffic.

The second is the OperA project: "The aim is to study how to connect the airport with aerial mobility vehicles in urban centres, practically from door to door, so that the two systems can coexist safely," Delgado said.

Not just for the rich

The control tower is involved in these two programmes within Sesar, an EU consortium of public and private companies for the development of the aviation of the future in the Single European Sky. "Malaga is a spearhead, it is Enaire's benchmark in Spain for this type of technology."

For urban travel, 100 per cent electric, vertical takeoff and landing vehicles will be used. Initially, these aircraft will be manned by a pilot, although in the near future they are expected to become autonomous. The aim, the expert stresses, is to make this new aerial urban mobility accessible, "not just for the rich".

The OperA project also envisages building a 'vertiport' at the airport, which is the equivalent of a heliport for drones, and will be equipped with high-power electrical charging points. The possibility of having an annex terminal or using the existing ones is also being studied. Aena, responsible for the ground area, is looking for possible locations.

The Lilium passenger drone during a test flight.
The Lilium passenger drone during a test flight. SUR

"Passengers will arrive by plane from London, go to the 'vertiport' area and get on a drone that will take them to Granada or Marbella, or to a hotel in the city centre, or their home in the countryside," Delgado explained.

The flight from Malaga to Marbella will take between 15 and 20 minutes; the journey to Granada will take about 50 minutes.

The first test operations will be between Malaga and Granada, and the idea is to begin in the second half of 2025. The corridors for these operations are already being designed so that they are compatible with traditional flight paths.

And when will the first passengers be able to board? The regulatory framework in the EU is speeding up because the demand and the technology already exist.

"Within three to four years we could be there, and I know that there are companies in Malaga that are already interested in this technology, to become operators and put air taxis into circulation. The structure of the market is still to be worked out; we don't know if it is going to be more like a taxi, an airline or a mixture of the two. By way of example, in the United States, Uber is heavily involved in this new technology," he said.

Malaga is a particularly interesting point for future aeronautical operators due to the possibility of connecting with the Costa del Sol, which has a clear lack of mobility. "We have already had requests from companies that wanted to link the airport with Marbella by helicopter, but with the rigid procedures that exist now throughout Europe it is very complicated; these projects are intended to make this real and in the medium term," Delgado explained.

In a decade, drone operations will be ten to one compared to commercial flights. If in Malaga, on peak days, there are 600 arrivals and departures, that means there will be up to 6,000 small aircraft flights every day. This refers to drones in all their facets: surveillance, agriculture, cleaning, etc. In addition to these already common uses, others will soon be added, such as parcel delivery and, above all, urban mobility.

Flying parcel delivery service

Another line of work is parcel drones, capable of home delivery. “The idea is to create safe corridors, where they can fly without interfering with air operations, from logistics centres (ports, industrial parks, etc.) to cities,” explained the tower chief. There is already an Amazon distribution centre in Malaga, a firm that has advanced this type of service in the United States. The idea is to activate the zones at certain times for drone flights, with a safety button that will always be in the hands of the controllers.

The first passenger drones likely to fly out of Malaga airport are the ones currently being designed by German firm Lilium, and part of their process is actually being carried out in Andalucía. Founded in 2015 in Munich, Lilium has a flight test centre in Villacarrillo (Jaén). The Lilium Jet is 100% electric and lands and takes off vertically. It could carry four to six passengers, has a cruising speed of 280 km/h and a range of 250 kilometres. It can reach a height of 3,000 metres. Hélity, the airline that currently runs the helicopter service between Malaga, Algeciras and Ceuta, has already shown an interest in buying five of these air mobility vehicles.

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