New aviation pioneers are battling on to deliver a whole new sector of flying machines. Alan Peaford reports
We are living in strange times. We have difficulties crossing oceans, meeting in person and seeing how innovators and visionaries are developing new concepts and inventions.
In many ways, there are great similarities between an aerospace world emerging from the pandemic and the period just over a century ago as engineers in the four corners of the world engaged in developing their own heavier than air flying machines.
In those days mail and newspaper wires would report on the Wright brothers, the Brazilian experimenter Alberto Santos-Dumont, with the first public flight in Europe in 1906 in his 14-bis. Frenchman Henri Farman with his first flight the following year in the Farman III, before completing the first European circular flight of at least 1km early in 1908. Bleriot, Curtiss and so many more.
Today Teams, Zoom and Google take over the role reporting on the latest on the Urban and Advanced air mobility potential. It is just over two years since the first Global Urban Air Summit (GUAS) opened its doors to a sceptical industry. Views were divided. Is this the future for aviation? Or is it a flying pie-in-the-sky.
The presence of international giants like NASA, the FAA, Boeing, Airbus, Oliver Wyman and Atkins paid testimony to the degree of seriousness that this new sector was being taken.
Since then, Armageddon in the shape of Covid-19 paralysed the commercial aviation industry, so had it scuppered the dreams of those who visualised the urban air taxis and more in a sustainable transport future?
Exciting phase of development for AAM
Not so, said Gareth Rogers, CEO of Farnborough International organisers of the event. “Advanced air mobility (AAM) is entering a period of extremely exciting development. New aircraft are at the extensive testing stage, facilities and infrastructure is now at the forefront of global government conversation, and businesses spearheading industry innovations continue to push the boundaries, with technology set to fundamentally revolutionise the future of transport.”
While this year’s summit has been postponed until March 2022, the work of these innovators goes on. The UK government, supported by the regulator the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have been actively driving development for the sector which has widened its scope from the pure urban-inner city transport to a greater regional network, hence the addition of AAM to the event title. Around the world the floodgates have opened to include flying cars, flying bikes and jet packs for personal flight.
Air taxis could become reality in just two years
The UK’s Future of Flight Challenge awarded a £2.5m grant to a consortium led by engineering consultants Atkins to look at the feasibility of an air taxi service in the south west region, before conducting a demonstration in a live environment.
The study will comprise an assessment of the demand for an air taxi service, and evaluate the integration and impact on the region’s existing transport network. It is likely that live operations will be happening within the next two years. Meanwhile in Coventry, Urban Air Port has been given the go-ahead to develop a UAM hub. This site was chosen due to its location in the heart of the UK and also because it is a historic hub for the automobile and aerospace industries. The company believes the city has a pool of people and skills that can support the manufacturing industries of the future as urban air mobility takes off – and is within four hours to most parts of the country.
At the historic airfield of Duxford in Cambridgeshire, Faradair is developing its bio-electric hybrid aircraft (BEHA) a 19-seat passenger aircraft that its founder and CEO Neil Cloughley argues will be faster, cheaper and cleaner than trains.
Aerodromes: vital infrastructure under threat
But one major challenge facing the industry is are we witnessing a disconnect in our vision for the future. In the UK, a greater number of airfields and regional airports are under threat of developers who see the “brownfield” sites at potential housing estates.
According to John Gilder, the vice-chairman of GAAC, the general aviation awareness council and the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on General Aviation’s airfields working group, this is already happening.
“A combination of the demand for housing and the perception that airfields are underused, cheap land ripe for development due to a lack of planning protection has meant a large number of aerodrome sites have already been lost. Many others -50 plus- are under threat,” he said.
“Obviously, landing grounds are absolutely fundamental. There’s no point in having the aircraft if you can’t land them. it’s very important that we keep the airfield sites that we got to proceed now to become really useful to the communities of the future.”
The prospects for UAM – like those early flying machines – have global potential.
In Africa, Kenya Airways subsidiary Fahari Aviation has signed up with Embraer’s Eve, the Brazilian manufacturer’s Urban Air Mobility Solutions division . They have an MoU to jointly develop operational models for the wide accessibility of Urban Air Mobility.
EVE, came out of what we knew as Embraer X and the two sides are looking to co create concepts and procedures to safely scale up a electrical vertical take off and landing aircraft (eVTOL).
Fahari with the support of the airline and the Kenyan regulators will establish an urban air mobility network in Kenya with all of the necessary air traffic management procedures and indeed work with the airline into integrating into the traditional Kenya Airways operations.
Potential to boost connectivity across Africa
The airline CEO Allan Killavuka sees the potential of this not just for Kenya but for the whole African region. Just as neighbouring Rwanda and latterly Ghana demonstrated and proved the value of drone delivered medical supplies, Africa with its current poor regional connectivity could lead the way with safe and pragmatic use of e-aircraft to aid tourism and general connectivity in rural or remote parts of their countries.
Andre Stein, President & CEO of Eve said the creation of disruptive and widely accessible Urban Air Mobility solutions will help democratise mobility by making it more accessible, affordable and giving communities more options.
Embraer was also busy on its home ground this month where its first electric flight demonstrator successfully conducted its first flight. An EMB-203 Ipanema testbed, has flown from Embraer’s Gav-ee-Oh Payx otto facility, This is part of Embraer’s ambition to be entirely carbon neutral by 2040 and the converted crop duster will allow for testing of battery and other technologies.
Like Kenya Airways Japan’s flagcarrier JAL has been working on partnerships to develop UAM for medical supplies and air taxis in concepts that the airline believes could reach across Asia.
Sector spans regional transport to flying bikes
In the US, I was fascinated to hear about Jetpack Aviation and the development of what looked like a stunt has progressed from an experimental flight around the Statue of Liberty into a personal transport system for special forces in the US and South East Asia and is now being progressed into a flying bike the size of a jetski that can manage a 300kg payload which has military and emergency services potential.
So with Advanced Air Mobility moving beyond way city limits into regional and rural areas, The GUAAS 2022 event in March will be addressing the issues on how to drive forward to expand in line with industry progression, demonstrating real technology in operation, concepts becoming reality and establishing how AAM related services will benefit the wider community.
Alongside the summit a Cities & Regions Forum will offer delegates a platform to engage with city planners, officials and financial institutions.
“This is about exploring the challenges and opportunities that are experienced in bringing AAM to life in populated areas on a local, regional and national scale” Rogers said.
We are at the start of something big.