FIA draws focus on the electric future of air mobility

While the concerns around infrastructure and people’s beliefs still remain, the industry experts are confident about the potential of UAM which will takeover transportation in the times to come

Issue: 8 / 2020By Ayushee ChaudharyPhoto(s): By Lilium Jet, Uber Elevate
DESIGNED WITH REGIONAL MOBILITY IN MIND, LILIUM JET AIMS TO BALANCE COMPETING REQUIREMENTS FOR RANGE, SPEED AND PAYLOAD WHILE DELIVERING A LOW NOISE FOOT PRINT AND SAFETY

Ever since the talks and testing of unmanned air vehicles started, the future of air mobility has gained excitement and interest from all across the globe. From start-ups to established manufacturers, everyone has been gearing up to come up with unmanned vehicles and redesign the urban air mobility (UAM ) picture. Talks about UAM vehicles and how they are going to bring aviation to the masses are all around the industry but how will this new style of transportation work for a large segment of the population, still remains a question. During FIA Connect some answers and developments about the future of air mobility were discussed through multiple panel discussions and sessions so as to throw light on the journey of ‘demo to do’.

The sessions also discussed that while start-up companies enjoy an advantage in developing the disruptive technologies driving the UAM revolution, there is still a crucial role to play for the incumbent aerospace industry giants.

THE PANDEMIC AS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR UAM’S POTENTIAL

The COVID -19 pandemic has affected the development in the UAM sector much like in any other sector. However, many see that as a positive because it has ushered in a new era of for change and an acceleration of its implementation. Moreover, regulatory flight waivers during the crisis have allowed development to be undertaken more freely with regard to flight-testing. COVID -19 has also given some companies a chance to demonstrate the benefits of electric aviation. China’s EHang, for instance, has been using its autonomous air vehicles to deliver medical supplies and personnel to hospitals during the crisis.

Boeing Next’s vice president and general manager Steve Nordlund said during a session, “Limitations caused by social distancing due to the COVID -19 pandemic have changed the way people shop and how deliveries are received. UAV s can also be used to deliver urgent health care and medications to people safely, even in remote areas and in the aftermath of natural disasters. I think all of that is going to emerge as a potential opportunity in a way that adds a whole new dimension to how aviation systems.”

However, this may or may not be a blessing in disguise for the sector as a whole. Many others in the industry consider that those with more mature, more consortium-driven user cases appear most likely to find traction.

Some speakers also raised concerns that Covid had introduced uncertainties, mainly at the societal level. The nature of the “workplace” and that of business travel in the future is far from certain, nor are the best uses for electric aviation. Local authorities might not consider short-range, intra-urban travel as attractive a proposition as using electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL ) machines to bring commuters into the city from outlying areas to relieve some of the burden on ground transportation.

According to the management consultancy Roland Berger, more than 1,60,000 small, remotely-piloted passenger aircraft will be in service in congested cities around the world by 2050. And while the coronavirus outbreak may delay many eVTOL developments over the next months and years, the firm expects it to have little long-term impact on the growth of the UAM market.

ELECTRIC IS THE WAY FORWARD

Speaking at the Global Urban Air Summit (GUA S) at FIA Connect, Roland Berger’s UAM project leader Stephan Baur stated nearly 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities and towns by 2050, with population size expected to outstrip ground transportation capacity by over a third.

Technology is moving so quickly, it may not be long until everyday flight becomes feasible through the power of the platform that Uber brings through its huge network of demand, said Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate while emphasising his company’s commitment to UAM , having started on this challenge three years ago.

Uber Elevate’s Allison also gave his reasons as to why the future is electric by stating, “We’ve come to the pretty strong conclusion that all electric is actually the way to go, right out of the gate. The reason for this is that it’s actually interesting ripple effects and consequences of what you choose in terms of power. It’s effectively designing a system of systems that the service is the product – it’s not the airplane itself. And so we have to think about the implications on infrastructure siting, infrastructure permitting, costs of building an infrastructure and how that effects the economics of the overall service.”

Honeywell’s Senior Director, Strategic Planning, UAM , Jia Xu, also seconded the belief for the electric future. He said, “We have a vision that the future of air cargo will be completely autonomous, from warehouse to your house and urban air travel will be ubiquitous and accessible with electrified and highly autonomous aircraft. And that’s why we’re building innovative propulsion and avionics systems for UAM and UAS to make that future a reality.”

Xu also added that there certainly are benefits, but not without challenges. Unit economics would need to be improved with UAM vehicles carrying less passengers and parcel delivery fulfilment centres would need to be developed for occasions when a pilot couldn’t physically fit into an aircraft.

UAM technologies are also finding extension in space through NASA as well as in defence. NASA’s vision of UAM is a safe and efficient air transportation system where everything from small package delivery drones to passenger-carrying air taxis operate above populated areas.

WITH UBER ELEVATE, THE TEAM AIMS TO TRANSFORM COMMUTE THROUGH AERIAL RIDESHARING BETWEEN SUBURBS AND CITIES, AND ULTIMATELY WITHIN CITIES.

The US Air Force is also pursuing UAM technologies and is eager to help develop such platforms. “There is so much more innovation happening outside the government. We have to get outside our walls and where innovation is happening. UAM is on the cusp of flying us around as the Jetsons promised in 1962. When we look at UAM and what a big impact that could be for the economy, the Air Force cannot stand by idly and hope the market evolves. We think we can be some of the first adopters of this technology,” said Will Roper, US Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics.

Roland Berger even expects the 1,60,000 eVTOL s by 2050 to be spread equally across three defined market niches:

  • The first group will be city taxis – on demand point-to-point flights from any available landing pad or vertiport within a defined area. The aircraft for this market would mostly be designed to carry up to two passengers and their light luggage for a distance of between 15 km to 50 km.
  • The next category will be airport shuttles – scheduled short-haul operations connecting landing pads with an aerodrome. These routes will be served by eVTOL S carrying mostly up to four passengers between 50 kg to 80 kg of luggage.
  • The third would be inter-city flights, which are described as scheduled services connecting two conurbations that are not served by a regular commercial service. Aircraft serving this niche will carry over four passengers on distances of up to 250 km.

Roland Berger also expects a step-by-step introduction of UAM. “In the early years when volumes are small and costs high, it will be introduced as a high-price, exclusive service to say business executives mostly,” said Manfred Hader, Roland Berger’s senior partner, aerospace and defence. “As we go down the learning curve, and the scale of the operations increase, we will see the transition to a premium public transportation means, where UAM services will be comparable with taxi services in terms of cost,” he further added.

REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS

Efforts need to center on regulation, capital, and timing, and if any of those factors do not happen in proper sequence, the market will not develop properly. “So when the vehicles are ready, the infrastructure is coming on line, and the regulations are in place, then they can operate in a commercially relevant way,” added Allison.

Michael Romanowski, director of the FAA’s (Federal Aviation Administration) Policy and Innovation Division, representing the US agency said, “Being the regulator, it is my job to look out for the safety of the system and the vehicles that will operate in the UAM environment.” The FAA is now working with 30 companies in its Innovation Center to help them on the path toward certification of their UAM vehicles. But certification is only one step. Helping the public understand the safety of such vehicles will be another important factor.

COMMUNITY CONCERNS & INFRASTRUCTURE ISSUES

However, before operations can begin, the UAM developers still have to overcome several barriers. Romanowski highlighted that when he speaks with local community groups, their big concern is whether UAM s will be flying over their houses. It is important to communicate, he explained, and “make sure the community understands. We can make the vehicles quiet, but where will they fly? The most likely routes will be over freeways, mimicking how helicopters operate, but eventually as people realise how quietly UAM vehicles operate, random programming could be used to create routes that only occasionally fly over a particular home.”

To gain the trust, technology on these new platforms must be mature, safe, and properly certificated for airworthiness, the speakers discussed.

While the focus is now mainly on the vehicles themselves, the question of infrastructure is increasingly becoming the main topic as teams build their businesses. That presents obvious issues such as vertiports, communications, and air traffic management. The question of whether UAM is considered as mass transport available to all, or a high-premium service for the few, is yet to be answered. This question also has a bearing on social and political acceptance at a local level. The discussions also pointed out that it seems unlikely that governments would commit large investments to UAM infrastructure, leaving a void for the private sector to fill.

Nevertheless, following a number of studies underway on a city-by-city basis, the question of infrastructure is now beginning to be tackled at an active level, with investment imminent to lock up properties that are ideal for vertiports in the most promising cities.

As UAM is a completely new mobility system, much of its promised convenience will depend on how seamlessly it integrates with the existing transport network – air, rail and road. This will not only require a rethink of the mobility chain and services, but will also require investment in additional infrastructure such as vertiports, Hader said. He further added that it also raises the question about what are the best location for these landing sites and what will they look like.

Not just that, UAM also needs a clear and convincing business case to show that it is commercially viable and can attract the necessary funding to scale up. Hader also highlighted that, “The industry must show that eVTOL s actually fly, and what they are really capable of. This in turn will spur the public’s imagination and appetite for UAM services, which in turn will rally the support of authorities and investors.”

“You have to have that collaboration with that fast, disruptive thinking not bounded by pre-conceived notions that might exist in a 104-year old company. But how do you bring and accelerate development when you get to the tough things of certification, regulation, and even manufacturing? It’s bringing the best of both worlds together,” stated Brian Schettler, senior managing director with Boeing HorizonX.

While speaking for the first virtual FIA, Lilium’s Chief Operating Officer, Remo Gerber said, “Many people hear about urban mobility today and they are thinking flying from one part of the city to the other. We do not have our belief that this is where this whole industry is going to start. We, of course believe in flying inter-city and in connecting city centres to other city centres but the biggest goal we set ourselves is to save time for our customers and for that you do need a certain minimum distance for a first mile and the last mile transfer to really make sense and to create that time gain.” Gerber highlighted three ways that Lilium is really focusing on for that.

  • One is the range of the aircraft to connect cities as far away as possible and really create that time gain. However, the side effect of that is this range since the batteries can be recharged on shorter distances.
  • Secondly is around the speed which can very effectively create time gain from one inter-city to another inter-city.
  • aircraft as quiet as possible, six to seven times quieter than a helicopter so it can fit into existing city noise environments and also more specifically, also use the sort of arteries that connect the city’s motorways, train lines, rivers to create almost like the perfect combination for not bothering the people that live there and still connect them with an aerial service.

The consultancy also stated that with a forecast requirement for about 2,00,000 vehicles over the next 20 years, and with most of them being eVTOL aircraft, the incumbents certainly have an interest in the UAM marketplace. While their relative inertia to innovate internal processes might give start-ups the edge in terms of rapidly prototyping and maturing technological innovations, those companies typically do not have the internal expertise to oversee regulatory compliance for either the air vehicles or their manufacture. That’s where companies such as Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer play a major role, the sessions pointed out. This has also resulted in many making significant investments themselves in start-ups that are tackling some of the key technological issues. Battery technology remains one of the limiting factors to the performance along with financial viability of the UAM sector.

Gary Cutts, director of the UK government-backed Future Flight Challenge project, also noted that while start-ups drive the sector, they need to form consortia to present more rounded cases that encompassed the entire “ecosystem” surrounding UAM . That includes the involvement of regulators, operators, and local city governments, as well as an embrace of airspace, communications, and infrastructure requirements.

Hader though stated that start-ups need to step-up their testing and certification efforts and start preparing for industrialisation, all of which is high cash consuming but as development schedules are on track, and new milestone, such as test flights have been successfully reached, investors are now increasing their funding. Roland Berger is confident the UAM market will take-off after 2030, and then grow rapidly. “We are very positive about this industry and expect more than 160,000 passenger drones to be flying by 2050,” Hader said.