Now that we have established that hurdles confronted by urban air mobility (UAM) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are similar and executives on either industry can do a good job by crossing the divide and bringing useful expertise to the other side, it is time to explore the feasibility of both industries in terms of commercial success.
As recently as early October 2020, the renowned research firm Frost & Sullivan researched the market potential for UAM or air taxis for a group of investors. The confidential report is said to be abundant with details of what smart cities are doing to pioneer the addition of these non-traditional aircraft to their airspace and enumerating the challenges that the new industry will face.
We reached out to Frost & Sullivan for comments on the private report and were connected to Aman Pannu and Michael (Mike) Blades, both are Aerospace, Defense & Security Vice Presidents who collaborated in the document. When asked about the intent of the research, Mike Spoke about the main driver of the effort.
“We looked at the demand side for a service that would transport a small number of people on eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) vehicles over relatively short distances,” he said emphatically. “In the past, cities like Sao Paulo and Mexico had successful helicopter businesses doing intra-city transportation at very high prices. This is not what we were intended to study, our focus was: what kind of affordable model will eventually replace this high-cost, high-maintenance service? We reached the conclusion that there’s a high demand for an affordable transportation system that would bring people from one side of a large city to the other, efficiently, hassle-free and at reasonable prices.”
Aman immediately took the word by making emphasis on the economic side.
“Replacing a $500 a seat service with a $50 a seat alternative is not realistic in the short term, but our study reveals a great potential demand for a more affordable and less complicated way of avoiding traffic and wasting time in a car,” he said with conviction. “It is essential that the cities/government and industry partner in developing the necessary infrastructure to enable an advance technology such as UAM to operate safely and sustainably in our skies. Besides, the industry needs to collaborate with the regulatory authorities to meet certifications requirements similar to the Aviation sector, though in line with the economies of scale the automotive sector experiences.”
As soon as Aman mentioned the manufacturers as part of the equation for success, we raised the issue of Boeing abandoning NeXt, its eVTOL initiative.
“Boeing’s decision to put NeXt on hold was determined by external forces, not an intrinsic result of the UAM market and its potential,” Aman said in defense of his findings. “The decision by one manufacturer doesn’t change the strong fundamentals for UAM and the different cities we studied for the report clearly have a latent demand for the service.”
Mike saw an opportunity to talk more in depth about the technological challenges and jumped in.
“Intercity will happen first and intracity will follow,” he said resolutely. “Established aircraft manufacturers will have a certain advantage, but don’t discount smaller players that would be able to develop faster. The main hurdle is still the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification process, but I’m convinced they will reach a compromise in which these vehicles will be treated differently without sacrificing safety, perhaps by adding a ballistic parachute to every vehicle and requiring triple or quadruple redundancy in certain systems for an eventual certification.”
The issue of certification and addition of non-standard aircraft to the national airspace (NAS) brought a new topic to the discussion.
“Some cities will be able to implement this service sooner than others.” Aman interceded, “It’s clear that industry will bring the solution to the regulator and then it would be implemented. There are cities in the world in which this process is simpler than in others. There are smart cities today that have the infrastructure and the political willingness to be pioneers and a lot of other geographies will soon follow.”
When compared with the challenges that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are facing in parallel with its UAM counterparts, Mike had a very good point.
“The demand is there but there’s also a lot of misinformation surrounding these non-traditional aerial vehicles,” he said convincingly. “If there’s anything we have learned over the past two decades is that they are drastic disruptive technologies but there is also a lot of apprehension to change. There’s a significant amount of investment by small and large players, both traditional and non-traditional aviation companies, and eventually UAM will happen, but we are still not clear on how or when it will become a reality.”
As we approached the end of our fascinating conversation, Mike made a useful brief of what, in his opinion, are the main obstacles and the way forward.
“I’ve been a pilot for 25 years, and I believe that autonomous/semi-autonomous methods of flight will first be relegated to well-defined low altitude corridors and with various degrees of autonomy required to conduct increasingly complex tasks within those corridors,” he said wrapping up. “Industry will have to come up with a blueprint for gradual deployment and a way to make it easier for the regulator to implement. We believe air taxis will usually carry 1 to 4 passengers to keep aircraft size small, and that these park and ride type setups can also be associated with existing airports as well as the familiar park and rides in cities.”
Aman ended the session with a comment about the study.
“We looked at a number of cities and found a huge potential for the service. How and when it would happen is still a big unknown, but the demand is there, industry is investing, and the regulator is looking carefully at alternatives. UAM will happen eventually.”
If these trends and demand potentials are true for the movement of passengers in large air taxis, it is also true that delivery of packages and services using small UAVs will happen either in parallel or in advance of transporting people. The challenges that both industries face are the same and will be solved simultaneously as we move into a future of electric aviation and non-conventional alternatives to transportation.