Agent of Change - Simon Rabyniuk

After Airspace, Data Hazard: Drafting Algorithms for European City Skies


In 1951 Sabena, the national airline of Belgium, established an intercity passenger helicopter network in the Benelux and neighboring countries. The Rijksluchtvaartdienst (State Aviation Authority) made it possible for selected Dutch municipalities to participate by exempting them from parts of the Wet Luchtvaart (Aviation Act, 1926) that would have blocked overflights of cities. In the correspondence between the ministry and the cities, there were often sketches that adapted the concept of airspace from national airports to city centers. The airspace of these so-called heliports was used to control two temporal aspects of urban flight: first, aircraft were required to maintain a certain distance from each other, and second, urbanization in adjacent areas was relatively delayed. By 1965, however, the Bureau Luchtwaardigheid (Office of Airworthiness) closed Rotterdam to Sabena’s helicopters, noting that the single-engine technology was advancing more slowly than the city’s rate of development: flight paths were blocked and emergency landing sites were built over. Technology, law and urban development co-produced and then shut down this intercity mobility network of the mid-twentieth century.

Data Hazard. Image: Simon Rabyniuk

Research by

    • Simon Rabyniuk

With city skies again a horizon for urban aviation, developing in the European Union under the neologism of U-space, the above historical discussion introduces a set of research questions about the relationship between the control of urban space, data and drones. The 2019 European Air Traffic Management Master Plan, which focuses on the digitization of Europe’s aviation infrastructure, defines U-space as a ‘framework designed to fast-track the development and deployment of a fully automated drone management system, in particular for but not limited to very low-level airspace. Scalable by design, U-space relies on high levels of autonomy and connectivity in combination with emerging technologies.’ While this wasn’t the first use of this branding, it marks a shift from white papers to normative policy. So-called ‘manned’ aviation has thus far thrived on fixed airspace, with its predictable spatial zoning that maintains separation between aircraft at airports and at higher altitudes. However, one of the promises of U-space made by European aerospace experts is its all-over quality, which reimagines airspace as morphogenetic: an emergent collective structure. This transformation is contingent on the digitization of aviation, with data, communication and automation as the foundational paradigms of U-space.

In observing the evolution of digital technologies from hippie modernism to platform monopolies, three axioms are now well understood. First, that emergent serendipity and centralized control are two sides of the same problem. Second, that rulemaking – authoring protocols for how data is collected, stored, transmitted, transformed or destroyed – is one way that power operates within networks. Lastly, technical systems enact the worldviews of their makers and are habit forming.

With this framework in mind, this research investigates how aerospace experts, through the design of U-space, are taking an authorial position on the coming form and nature of cities. It does so by investigating a series of U-space initiatives designing EU city skies for drones that were completed between January 2020 and December 2022. Speculative and well resourced, each of these initiatives claims current airspace concepts and practices are insufficient for the coming swarm and propose data-driven and AI facilitated approaches to, in their view, rectify this situation. By doing so, these initiatives stake the city as within the purview of aerospace expertise. In one regard, it's the return of the aerial imaginary realized in the 1950s, albeit reinterpreted through the filter effects of data science.

Credit images:

Image 1:
Left: Aerial photograph of the CS Quarter with the heliport at Katshoek in the far centre, 1 June 1960, 15863 – 4204 Dienst Gemeentewerken 1946-1995. Stadsarchief Rotterdam.
Right: Sketch for Dutch Department of Civil Aviation, assessing minimum standards/dimensions for urban helicopter airfields, 5 September 1951, 11141 Flight Safety Regulations Committee 1950-1959. Nationaal Archief, The Hague.

Image 2:
Left: Landing of a Sabena helicopter at the Heliport at Katshoek. In the background the properties on Vriendenlaan, 1960. 4122 – Collectie M.A.J. Hanse. Stadsarchief Rotterdam.
Rechts: Letter from the Rijksluchtvaartdienst (Civil Aviation Administration) granting an exemption from Air Traffic Regulation (article 60 paragraph 1 and 2), allowing helicopters to fly above Rotterdam, July 1953, 11141 Flight Safety Regulations Committee 1950-1959. Nationaal Archief, The Hague.

Image 3:
Left: AMU-LED (Air Mobility Urban – Large Experimental Demonstration) Port of Rotterdam demonstration, 16 August 2022. Source: SESAR.
Right: U-Space Roadmap presented in the 2022 European ATM Master Plan. Source: SESAR.

Image 4:
Left: AMU-LED (Air Mobility Urban – Large Experimental Demonstration) Port of Rotterdam demonstration, 16 August 2022. Source: SESAR.
Right: Future Airspace Architecture presented in the 2020 European ATM Master Plan. Source: SESAR.