OPINION: Urban Air Mobility – changing how people travel via natural evolution
Urban-centred air transportation is not a new concept. In the 1970s, Boston and some other cities had services based on-demand helicopter taxi. However, the accidents, air pollution, noise, and cost ultimately grounded the taxi services. Nevertheless, in the 21st century, the timing is right to revisit this mode of transportation as aviation technologies.
Moreover, the concepts have reached a level of maturity, which has changed the shape of aviation to enable Urban Air Mobility (UAM), using quiet and efficient piloted and unmanned vehicles to conduct the on-demand and scheduled operations.
UAM is an attractive business proposition, which is not too far off in the future. As road travel in large mega-cities becomes increasingly congested, the population commuting daily are looking for a better way to safely travel to work and other destinations. Urban air mobility can serve as the advanced way to commute each day. Urban air mobility, being a part of the future urban landscape, is a term used to describe the systems that enables on-demand, safe, highly automated and passenger and cargo carrying air transportation services in a metropolitan environment for manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems.
The urban air mobility market framework includes infrastructure, technology, and business. Infrastructure and technology are the most significant factors required for urban air mobility to take-off. The technological framework includes system architecture, battery operations, charging technology, software development, operations through ground and air operation and certifications, among others. The urban air mobility market is expected to create an entirely new industry. The vehicles need to be manufactured at a large scale, so that they create new opportunities and benefits through the advanced aircraft.
Sky ports require a lot of power, generating business for utility companies, while the need for a new infrastructure is expected to create opportunities for the real estate industry. The manufacturers are continuously taking initiatives to develop various innovative infrastructural concepts, such as better connectivity, better tracking systems and almost every vertiport in the future is expected to have charging stations.
The key development focus areas in the UAM framework include improvements in battery technology and new forms of electric propulsion system to increase flight ranges from 20 to 30km to more than 100 to 250km by 2030. Based on the developments in global urban air mobility market, aircraft prototypes have already been created and various test and trials are being conducted upon them. However, after the successful completion of test and trials, it is expected to take two to three years for regulations to be in place and for air taxis to be developed and become fully operational. Therefore, in the most optimistic scenario, the UAM urban air mobility can be commercially available by 2020 onwards.
Dubai, Singapore, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Tokyo are the five early key pioneers of urban air mobility creating major demand and attraction to this industry. Dubai launched test flights in 2017 and has an ambitious goal of launching commercial operations of its Autonomous Aerial Taxi Service in the near future. The Uber Elevate project is expected to go live in Los Angeles, Dallas, and other international cities in 2023. These services are expected to have human pilots and a short range of 20 to 50km focusing on intra-city mobility.
The Uber Elevate project
Moreover, higher cruising speed along with VTOL capabilities can help to cover larger distances within less time. In addition, the growing importance of last mile delivery and increasing usage in humanitarian relief operations are other opportunities for the growth of the urban air mobility market. Governmental regulations are expected to play an important role in commercialising the urban air mobility market. There are certain regulations that need to be followed by each operator. Each country has its own set of rules for operations. For instance, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the regulatory body for American civil aviation
Privacy and safety concerns is another challenge faced by the urban air mobility market. Air taxis or drones in sensitive locations, such as beaches and private properties, can become a matter of concern. Hence, this restricts the use of air taxis and drones in certain locations. The initial infrastructural setup cost as well as travelling cost is high, which could restrict the demand for the VTOL aircraft in the market.
Most of the technological constraints are related to battery and it is one of the reasons hindering the growth of the electric Vertical Take-off and Landing aircraft in the urban air mobility market. Weight of the battery is still an issue for lightweight flying vehicles, as they cannot carry heavy batteries. Effectively, 30% of a flying vehicle’s weight must be for the batteries and energy storage. Limited capacity of batteries to supports the functioning of eVTOL aircraft for a long time is obstructing the adoption of eVTOL aircraft.