The emergent UAM market will revolutionise everything – from how we travel to delivery of packages and urgent medical supplies. But there’s still regulatory and infrastructural challenges to iron out before flight can be taken to the next level
Urban Air Mobility (UAM) is no longer a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, it is now clearly a revolution waiting to happen.
The Mercedes Benz museum in central Stuttgart, Germany may have its focus on automobiles, but on September 14 eyes were on the sky as the pioneering autonomous eVTOL air taxi from Volocopter took to the skies on its debut urban mission.
Various test articles from the German start-up have broken new air with test flights at Helsinki Airport to prove the integration with air traffic management; in Dubai to prove the concept and in Singapore, touted to be the first genuine adopter of the UAM champion alongside Dubai with its Austrian/Chinese competitor, Ehang.
Volocopter is also breaking new ground in Singapore with the construction of its first Voloport – the base from which the eVTOL services will operate. Volocopter and Ehang are not alone. Indeed, earlier this month at the Global Urban Air Summit held at Farnborough, UK, it was reported that there are currently 150 different platforms at various stages of development across the whole UAM market.
Complex and layered market
The UAM market encompasses a lot of new technologies. At the top of the tree are the aero metro services, which could see scheduled services from city centres to the suburbs or across congested cities. These aircraft are likely to initially have human pilots to prove the system and develop public acceptance. Both Airbus (Vahana) and Boeing have flown prototypes of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft already.
Anticipating speeds two to four times faster than cars, the full-scale Vahana is 2.8 metres tall (9.2 ft), 5.7 metres high (18.7 ft) and 6.2 metres wide (20.3 ft), with a flight range of about 50 miles (80 km). “Our goal is to democratise personal flight by leveraging the latest technologies, such as electric propulsion, energy storage, and machine vision. Our first flights mark a huge milestone for Vahana, as well as the global pursuit of urban air mobility,” said Airbus.
These systems will be aimed at everyday commuters as a cost-comparable replacement for short-range urban transportation like cars or trains. The McKinsey consultancy estimates them being profitable by 2030 and entering service gradually before that date.
The high investment costs of developing ‘vertiports’ in all neighbourhoods make a widespread air taxi market unlikely by 2030, according to McKinsey. It does, however, see opportunity for concentrated areas of high-net-worth individuals and businesses served by an air taxi solution (eg Manhattan to suburbs) for single or two-seat passengers.
Unmanned package deliveries first to market
The associated urban air system of package delivery – or last-mile parcel delivery as it is known – is likely to be the first to market. These small unmanned drones, carrying parcels weighing a couple of kilos and delivering to individual homes and offices at determined landing spots, are already under test by Amazon. They could be a familiar site 400 feet above our homes by 2028 as eCommerce firms “lean in” to the market. In Africa, Rwanda has successfully integrated unmanned systems into its airspace to enable the delivery of blood supplies and medicines to remote rural areas. It is a model that is now being successfully rolled out in several other countries.
Trials will focus on rural areas first
It is the area of regulation that looks like the biggest challenge – despite the expressions of willingness from the major authorities such as the FAA, EASA and UK’s CAA. It looks as though trials and approvals in areas such as Rwanda will lead the way with rural areas demonstrating the performance data before public will be transported in urban areas like London and LA. Even then, it is likely that the first passengers will be joined by a pilot.
McKinsey argues that many technologies are simply not there yet in terms of capabilities and performance to fill certain functions that are required for sale and reliable operations, which means regulators cannot set reasonable or reliable safety standards for key UAM operations.
The regulatory process struggles to keep pace with the speed of innovation and demands already from industry, but for many of the innovators and disruptors developing VTOL and drone-based platforms, they are unfamiliar with aviation and the regulatory process associated with it. The rulemaking process is inherently collaborative, and requires community engagement and review, as well as compliance with the law. Regulators such as the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) are looking to develop ways to help fast track the process without compromising the number one goal – safety.
‘Innovation Sandbox’ – the CAA’s test zone
Volocopter’s two-seat autonomous 18-propeller and nine-electric engine urban air taxi has been linked with the UK CAA after the regulator launched a virtual space, called the ‘innovation sandbox’, in which new technology can be safely tested, offering innovative companies the chance to discuss, explore and test emerging concepts.
Sandbox provides the necessary fertile ground to work with all stakeholders towards making cities like London a showcase for new forms of mobility,” said Florian Reuter, Volocopter’s chief executive.
Reuter sees a future where fixed-wing business aircraft will fly to traditional airports and Volocopters will take over to bring guests into the congested cities. “Business aviation users will be the pioneers but, as costs come down, production increases and the system becomes more familiar. It will then roll out further.
“Electric aircraft are the key to solving noise and emission challenges,” he said.
Closure of UK’s small airports will impede UAM development
Aside from the challenge of regulation, there is the issue of infrastructure. Atkins is working with Volocopter on the first Voloport in Singapore but like the development of the first telephone – there needed to be another to make the connection.
If we look at the logical development of UAM there will need to be thousands. Concepts such as small regional carriers can be faster and cheaper than rail according to Faradair’s Neil Cloughley. But the UK’s airports are being closed down. In my view this will impede the UK’s ambitions in the UAM/regional field. Small GA airfields will be ideal to grow the industry but when cities like Plymouth, Hertford, Sheffield and Ipswich lose their local airfields, the future prospects for a quiet, clean, efficient air transport becomes all the less likely.
It will happen. There is a remarkable sense of collaborative effort going on. IATA – the association for airlines – earlier this week joined the air navigation group CANSO and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations (IFALPA) to submit a working paper calling on states to work together through ICAO and in cooperation with industry to develop provisions for these airspace new entrants.
Drone operations “could triple” by 2023
“By 2023, drone operations in the US alone could triple according to some estimates. And the general trend is the same worldwide. The challenge is to achieve this potential safely,” said Alexandre de Juniac, the CEO of IATA. “The safety of civil aviation is the model. Industry and governments must work in partnership on the global standards and innovations needed to safely achieve the tremendous potential of drones.”
Removing the fear, recognising the difference between toy drones and commercial air vehicles and talking across the industry from manufacturer-regulator-operator and other stakeholders is the only way we will be able to embrace this new opportunity and take flying to the next level.