Over the past year a wave of announcements has rocked and shocked the nascent industry of Urban Air Mobility or UAM. From fundraising records, to unlikely alliances, the UAM business community seems to be getting its act together and moving rapidly to prove that they can develop an electric aircraft capable of safely moving a small number of people a short distance.
But developing an aircraft is not enough to have a viable business case, they will have to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and then new infrastructure will have to be developed, or old infrastructure modified, to accept these novel vehicles and their passengers. And then the issue of joining an already crowded national airspace (NAS) comes to the forefront. Can it be done?
It is widely believed that for UAM vehicles to be viable they would have to be electric-powered, capable of taking off and landing as helicopters but also able to fly as planes, in other words, eVTOL (Electric Vertical Take Off and Landing). This generalization has made the industry focused entirely on beautiful designs and radical propulsion technologies in order to make the designs viable.
Established aviation companies such as Boeing, Airbus, Embraer and Bell have prototypes that are currently performing flight tests and are at different stages of completion.
- Boeing –Aurora PAV: This collaboration between the Seattle aviation giant with Aurora Flight Sciences has resulted in a viable prototype capable of transporting two people over distances of 50 miles or less.
- EmbraerX – eVTOL: This subsidiary of Embraer, is known as the disruptive technology arm of the Brazilian Aerospace giant and the development of their eVTOL platform has been a key component of the Uber UAM strategy from day one.
- Bell Flight – Nexus: This traditional helicopter company recently dropped the word “helicopter” from its name to become a more general-aviation corporation developing platforms that are not necessarily rotary wing solutions. Their eVTOL prototype benefits from decades of vertical flight experience from this seasoned aerospace manufacturer.
- Airbus Vahana: For over four years the European consortium has been pouring millions of Euros into the design of the Vahana, perfecting an eVTOL platform aimed directly at the unpiloted market.
Together with these traditional players, new companies have launched promising designs that are making a mark in the segment, most notably:
- Volocopter (Intel): In a tight collaboration with Intel, this pioneer of eVTOL technology has performed thousands of test flights and their technology is way ahead of many competitors.
- Ehang – Ehang 216: This Chinese company recently went public in the USA under the ticker EH on the Nasdaq stock exchange. It has been able to raise millions of dollars from thousands of investors* and their platform has performed countless autonomous demo flights with live passengers.
- Opener – Blackfly is a revolutionary flying concept based on the idea that the entire vehicle tilts forward after take-off as opposed to have moving parts that tilt, a procedure that has been proven difficult, to say the least.
UAMs radically differ from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the fact that they are supposed to transport people, not goods. Therefore, the regulations are exponentially more stringent and the certification process more onerous and slower. But even if we accept the premise that one or more of these vehicles will be certified by the FAA, how do we incorporate them into existing air traffic control (ATC) rules? After all we are adding these vehicles and their passengers to the NAS to join thousands of existing flights in routes that have been flown for decades.
Even though we are still using the same tools in the USA—radar and VHF omnidirectional Range (VORs), plus VHF (Very High Frequency) radio voice commands to route and reroute aircraft—we have fine-tuned the safest and most reliable ATC system in the world. The last fatal American commercial aircraft accident occurred on February 12, 2009. Since then, the industry has transported over 9 billion passengers in hundreds of thousands of daily flights.
Given these numbers and all of this success, it doesn’t seem like it would make any sense to make changes, but changes are already happening at the highest levels. The commercial airline industry continues to grow while business jets are making an aggressive comeback. All of this has added hundreds of unscheduled flights to the system on a daily basis. Conventional aviation forecasts for the near future with current air traffic (commercial, cargo flights and helicopters) having quadrupled in the last 30 years and are set to double in the next 15.
On top of all these changes to conventional aviation, small unmanned vehicles, aka drones, have begun to enter the already crowded NAS. This has compelled conversations about what it will mean for this technology to do so in a safe way, and that’s an essential element to sort through because effectively doing so will lead to the integration of air taxis and other vehicles that can operate in an UAM ecosystem.
To make matters a bit more complicated, most large urban areas, where 80% of the potential users of UAM vehicles are located, fall under Class B airspace (Class Bravo), which is the busiest and most regulated classification of the entire airspace management system. To enter Class Bravo airspace an aircraft has to be equipped in a very particular manner and receive clear and specific instructions to enter. Nothing that happens inside Class Bravo airspace is unmonitored and the flow of incoming and outgoing aircraft is a well-choreographed machine.
Given the rigorous safety standards and safety culture that are so well established, how are we going to add these two new players to the field while maintaining the same levels of safety and reliability? Not only that, how are we going to convince the FAA in the USA and EASA in Europe to do this at no extra cost and with no obvious benefits to them as regulators?
These agencies and the countless NASP’s (National Airspace Service Providers) around the world are mostly government agencies or not-for-profit private corporations such as Nav Canada, which is the ATC entity that manages over 3.3 million flights over Canadian territory every year. What would be the argument to convince these agencies to increase their workload exponentially, while being expected to maintain the same level of safety and reliability with no obvious benefit to them?
In conclusion, the challenge for aircraft manufacturers is not to come up with a beautiful and practical design that satisfies all the safety requirements of its flight characteristics, but to also address the challenges of adding this novel technology to the NAS in a manner that guarantees the safety and reliability of the current system while at the same time remaining profitable in this new industry.