Patience will be key to urban air mobility
Startups and their government allies are in the midst of birthing an entire new mode of commuting. It won’t be easy, despite some very optimistic timelines, but it will be worth it. Aviation attorney Erin I. Rivera predicts the path ahead for urban air mobility.
BY ERIN I. RIVERA
It’s often while stuck in rush-hour traffic that I daydream of commuting by jetpack. The dream usually fades as traffic clears and I realize the impracticalities of commuting that way: How would I carry my coffee?
Jetpacks might not be realistic, but an airborne commute with my coffee appears to be in reach. I’m referring to the electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft in development for air taxi service for the likes of U.S.-based Uber Air and Volocopter of Germany.
These companies have aggressive schedules for this new mode of transportation. Uber Air thinks it can start its air taxi service in 2023 by operating piloted eVTOL vertiports in Australia and the United States, while Volocopter wants to do so in 2023, possibly in Singapore, and projects that before 2035 it will have several “VoloPorts” in Singapore capable of accommodating thousands of passengers a day.
These piloted services will be a start, but will there be thousands of fully autonomous, electric aircraft whizzing over major cities in the next few years? Not likely. What we can expect is a crawl-walk-run (fly?) approach toward autonomy as regulators and agencies figure out how to safely nurture this coming new mode of transportation into widespread operation.
To carry passengers commercially in the United States, eVTOL aircraft will need an airworthiness type certificate from FAA. Once out of the vertical phase of flight, many aircraft designs will be capable of producing wing-borne lift like traditional aircraft, which means they will most likely be type certified under Part 23 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Some eVTOL designs, such as the VoloCity eVTOL, do not incorporate wings and rely on powered-thrust to achieve lift through all phases of flight. These types of eVTOL designs would most likely be type certified as a rotorcraft under Part 27. However, the majority of eVTOL designs in development incorporate some form of wing-borne lift, which is more efficient power-wise to operate during cruise flight. The Part 23 certification regulations, which were amended (Amendment 64) in 2017, also provide increased flexibility for certifying new technology in aircraft designs, making Part 23 the most favorable route for eVTOL certification. As of March, there were at least 15 eVTOL aircraft undergoing type certification in the United States, said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson in an address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C.
Likewise, technology and regulatory developments are underway outside the U.S. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency has published certification standards that provide a pathway to type certification for small eVTOL aircraft, such as the 18-rotor eVTOL VoloCity air taxi design announced by Volocopter. Currently, there are some 200 electric and hybrid-electric eVTOL concepts in various stages of development, according to the eVTOL aircraft directory maintained by eVTOL.com.
What’s so great about eVTOLs? Today, conventionally fueled helicopters and turboprop aircraft carry passengers here and there, but these will never give us the desired “Jetsons”-like services due to their operating complexity, costs and noise. For air taxis and aerial ride-sharing networks to be feasible, eVTOL aircraft must be easier, safer, quieter and more cost-efficient to operate in comparison to the equivalent-size helicopter or turboprop aircraft. Swapping out conventional fuel-burning engines for electric motors and battery systems is a step in the right direction to reducing noise and costs, but alone it’s not enough. Growing the business model beyond the initial startup services will mean eventually transitioning from a pilot-on-board to some other form of control, such as a remote pilot on the ground or someday possibly fully autonomous flight. For an air taxi that seats four to five occupants, gaining one additional seat by removing the pilot significantly increases revenue and reduces cost by eliminating the pilot’s salary and training expenses.
In the U.S., aerial ride-sharing networks will start off with a small geographic service range and will be regulated according to FAA’s current 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 135 regulations, which apply to most small private charter operators, such as helicopter charter companies. Air taxi operators may be limited to point-to-point daytime flights, such as what Uber Air plans for its initial operations in Dallas. Air taxis, even if capable of autonomous operations, will at first be operated by an on-board certificated pilot, largely due to the public’s preference to have a pilot aboard.
Addressing the operating costs will largely determine the success of the air taxi and aerial ride-sharing industry. According to Uber’s 2016 UAM white paper, its long-term plans assume achieving autonomous operations to decrease pilot operating expenses. Volocopter’s two-seater VoloCity eVTOL is capable of either piloted or autonomous operations, but Volocopter plans to first cultivate consumer trust through piloted flights. That said, being limited to one paying passenger, piloted flights in a VoloCity may not be sustainable for long.
In the United States, research agencies are finding ways to help U.S. companies through such issues. The future of this sector needs the right name, and NASA has adopted the term “advanced air mobility,” which encompasses a broader range of industry developments and applications for eVTOL aircraft and related technologies, including military, emergency response, air-cargo and urban air mobility.
To help accelerate industry developments, NASA established AAM working groups, comprised of industry experts, regulators and stakeholders, that will share “input, information and opinions that may help to accelerate the development of safe, high-volume AAM flight operations in the existing and anticipated future national airspace system,” according to NASA.
The U.S. Air Force in April announced that it will lead a new program, Agility Prime, that also involves the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy and Army. The aim is to accelerate the development of the commercial market for advanced air mobility vehicles. What the military expects to gain from its funding support are eVTOL aircraft and related technologies that have military applications, including cargo transport and medical evacuation. The military will provide prototype funding and flight-test resources, such as access to military ranges and facilities, to help test and evaluate promising eVTOL designs and related technologies for military use across all branches. The data produced during the military’s evaluation may also prove helpful to the FAA in evaluating the same eVTOL design for FAA certification.
As the industry matures, we may see air taxi operations expand in the type of operations and locations they serve. We may also see a shift toward semi-autonomous operations in which the aircraft mainly flies itself, but a pilot on board initiates the takeoff and landing sequences, makes en route course adjustments and is responsible for the overall aircraft performance and safety.
With enough flight hours and a proven safety record, control of the aircraft may eventually recede from on board the aircraft to an operational ground station, where several air taxis would be remotely piloted and monitored. Air taxi networks and aircraft may even be operated someday by artificial intelligence algorithms, which enable fully autonomous aircraft to make real-time aircraft course adjustments in response to inclement weather, birds, system errors or emergencies — all with minimal or no human input.
The industry will need years, possibly decades, to develop with its long-term success largely dependent on gaining the public’s trust. There is no “Air Taxis for Dummies” guidebook (at least not yet) for how to scale up a multibillion-dollar industry, so industry stakeholders and regulators must ensure the correct technological and regulatory decisions are made, and that means with safety in mind. A fatal accident caused by safety deficiencies in vehicle design or operations, especially during the crawl phase, may likely prove devastating to the industry’s success. Indeed, industry stakeholders, regulators and the general public require “proof-of-concept” of the industry’s utilitarian value before further industry developments can occur. As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.