With more than 60 per cent of world’s population forecast to live in urban areas by 2050, dealing with congestion is a growing concern.

The emerging urban and regional air mobility sector (UAM) is rapidly evolving and means the sky can become part of the transport solution. Development of this new paradigm in urban transportation is now progressing to the stage of actual future-for-flight trials in different cities.

James Richmond, the urban Air Mobility lead for Atkins, one of the world’s leading design, engineering and project management consultancies, explains the trends and some of the projects which are taking place. He said: “We are currently facing a coalescing of mega trends and drivers, and technology breakthroughs. Some of these macro environmental and economic trends are our drive to be more sustainable, and the unprecedented urban growth that we’re seeing, and we can now add COVID-19 recovery to that list too.”

Need for better and more distributed transport modes

Richmond added: “These trends drive the need for cleaner and more efficient modes of transport, but also the need for better and more distributed transport nodes as well. And in addition, we may see some conventional players looking to diversify and make their business models more resilient.”

Richmond added that although the UAM technology was progressing due to a series of technological breakthroughs in electric propulsion, advanced communications and automation, the prospect of urban air mobility was “not new.”

UAM is “not a transport revolution”

“It’s not a transport revolution in its most basic form,” he explained, “What is a transport revolution is when you’re able to viably scale the system and make new connections possible in a more sustainable way. And by means of which society can accept.”

Although some of the illustrations of what the new UAM sector may look like they’ve come straight out of a sci-fi book, Richmond said the emerging sector should focus instead on what was viable, accessible and acceptable to the public. He added collaboration between stakeholders, on regulation, certification and the type of vehicles and data produced would hold the key to the sector’s progress.

Technology, regulation, viability and scalability

“All of the practical issues that we face within urban air mobility largely sit within two groups,” he explained. “There’s those that enable the implementation, such as the maturity of technology and the regulatory framework. And then there’s the critical success factors in ensuring the scalability and viable operation.”

MRO was another issue for the emerging sector as the current infrastructure of aircraft hangars were commonplace at airports, but wouldn’t work within an urban context, especially for longer base maintenance related checks.

Both physical and cyber security would be crucial to gaining public acceptance, particularly as the sector moved toward autonomous flight.

Cybersecurity would be built into system architecture

Richmond said UAM security would come in “many forms” from flight control architecture through to screening passengers or cargo. He said, as yet, essential cybersecurity requirements remained largely untouched by regulators.

“The reality is that all of these factors form overall system resilience, and it must be considered holistically as part of the design process and up front. For no matter how advanced, clever or complex a system is, it’s only as strong as its weakest link.”

“And I think by failing to address these emerging cyber security issues, in particular, the risks linked to digitization and interconnectivity. If we ignore those, I think we’re effectively putting the entire sector in jeopardy. And despite this, as things stand there is little in the way of specific cybersecurity requirements mandated by regulators.”

Atkins will operate south west England air taxi testbed consortium

Volocopter and other vehicle producers are talking about being in major cities within the next few years and Richmond explained the consensus was that we would start to see UAM vehicles and their support systems in place within the next three- to five-years.

“But I think we have to look beyond this if we are really to start to see the possible benefits delivered. It’s been said many times that the best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Atkins is leading a consortium as part of the UK government’s future flight challenge. The consortium, which will operate as a testbed in the south west of England, will assess the feasibility and development of advanced air mobility with the aim of demonstrating air taxi services by as soon as 2023.

Operational framework could be exported anywhere in the world

Atkins will be providing the safety case and regulation input and bringing together the constituent parts, using “a systems of systems approach,” according to Richmond. He added: “We aim to form an operational framework that can hopefully be exported anywhere in the world.”

Richmond explained that the framework would not only be considering the vehicles, but we will also create public engagement, market interest, an evaluate the potential integration and demand with wider transportation systems.

He said the south west had been chosen as Bristol is a “very forward-looking city for the UK with not only innovation, but the aerospace industry as part of its core industrial strategy.”

“The consortium sees partners, each leaders in their field, covering the vehicle infrastructure, advanced air traffic communications, the business case, and demand modelling, data security, local authority, and an international airport to serve as a testbed. And it’s really the coming together of all of these stakeholders across sectors that will give Urban Air Mobility the best chance of succeeding.”

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