The Present and Future of Urban Air Mobility
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Without a doubt, COVID-19 disrupted our lives in many ways. One of the most affected sectors was the airline industry. The world was locked down and almost nobody was traveling for business or pleasure. Recently, the airline industry has been recovering in a very positive way and that has significantly increased air mobility.
In this article, I’d like to mainly focus on Urban Air Mobility (UAM). There are several definitions for UAM, but for me it is an efficient air transportation system that will transport people or cargo and will heavily rely on automated systems. Transportation will be within cities and potentially between cities that are not too far away from each other.
When we talk about UAM, we need to think about a very complex ecosystem that encompasses aircraft, air traffic management, and infrastructure, such as helipads, vertiports and airports. Regulations and certifications are also a big part of this ecosystem.
There are very promising efforts going on in the present, and these are creating challenges and great opportunities for the near future. Some of the challenges are related to significantly reducing the noise levels from UAM aircraft, developing enough infrastructure for vehicles to take off and land, having a dedicated air traffic management system for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and having the right regulations in place to ensure the safe operation of autonomous aircraft operating at lower altitudes.
There are more than 200 companies around the world involved in UAM development. Startups and several automotive OEMs are the most involved in UAM, but also most of the airframers are starting to pay attention to this trend.
Some OEMs in the automotive industry are approaching UAM with a wider vision, and they are not only working on the development of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOLs) vehicles or other types of UAVs, they are taking a systemic approach to also creating the ecosystem that will enable the development of UAM.
In terms of technology, we can highlight power sources, electric motors, and autonomous driving as the key technologies for UAM. To boost efficiency in UAM aircraft, being able to recharge or refuel as quickly as possible will be critical. The use of hydrogen fuel cells would considerably improve autonomy because energy density is much higher, which allows them to travel longer distances.
That being said, I strongly believe that compared to the airline industry, the auto industry is far ahead and better positioned for success in this arena. They are much more experienced on the key technologies for UAM, and additionally, the automotive industry has the extra advantage of having mass production capabilities.
In my opinion, this is an invitation for all of us in the aerospace industry to be humble and to be open to strategic collaborations beyond our own industry.
From a business standpoint, we are going through very interesting times. We are moving from maritime, automotive, or aerospace industries, to mobility ecosystems. This means that there are fewer divisions across industries and we now compete with companies that may be outside our own industry. This certainly will continue to disrupt the current context and will create new business and collaboration models.
As an example, some automotive OEMs have openly declared that they are planning to enter the aviation market by producing several types of air vehicles apart from UAMs. Some of these OEMs are also going through an identity change and are aiming to establish themselves as aviation OEMs in the years to come. This certainly will disrupt the market as we know it today.
From a social standpoint, urban areas are getting more populated and at the same time, urban mobility ecosystems are growing in complexity. Most existing flying vehicles have fixed wings and need a runway for take-off and landing; however, it is very difficult to continue building airports within cities. Vertical take-off and landing is the most important element in addressing this issue.
The use of small and highly automated aircraft in urban areas represents a great opportunity to solve traffic congestion. It is estimated that the price of using these aircrafts will be around 25% higher when compared with traditional taxis. This can be offset by the benefit of avoiding rush hours in big cities. Eventually, prices may go down.
Once UAM aircraft are a reality, structures in society will change. Roads and other structures could be used for different purposes, and, of course, the environment would become better by having fewer cars on the roads. Additionally, people’s life patterns may change as well. One example is that UAM could help reduce high population density in big cities around the world by allowing people to move to suburban areas. These people would be able to travel into the city for work in a very effective and convenient way.
UAM aircraft are part of the future of transportation. These vehicles are already a reality. The technology is there; we just need to have the right regulations in place.