What do college students know about advanced air mobility?

I asked as many as I could at AIAA’s recent student aircraft competition

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Packed inside a large white tent in the desert near Tucson, hundreds of college students worked feverishly last month on their small radio-controlled electric airplanes in the hopes of winning AIAA’s 2023 Design, Build, Fly competition.

Given my role as Aerospace America’s advanced air mobility reporter, this was the perfect place for me to conduct an informal survey of aspiring aerospace engineers about the rise of electric aircraft, especially air taxis and other eVTOLs, electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. I say “informal,” because I was not able to ask everyone the same questions, and of course I did not want to distract from their efforts to get their aircraft ready.

Among the 25 students I spoke with from a dozen countries, most seemed familiar with AAM and specifically urban air mobility concepts. A few expressed interest in a career in this sector of the aerospace industry.

When I raised the topic, four students chimed in right with references to specific air taxi developers. Two knew of Vermont-based Beta Technologies because they attended universities near the company headquarters, while another mentioned Germany’s Volocopter and another California-based Wisk.

Among those familiar with AAM, enthusiasm was high. When I mentioned air taxis, Tomas Morales, a senior from Pontifical Bolivarian University in Medellin, Colombia, responded quickly: “Air taxis, yes. In our Aircraft Design 2 course, we have to design an air taxi for five passengers from scratch.”

Several students told me that electric aircraft represent the cutting edge of aviation innovation.

Taylor Converse, a senior at Clarkson University in upstate New York, said a senior design project at her school involving Beta is geared toward new design ideas for eVTOLs.

“I think there’s a future for the AAM market, and especially for electric aircraft for regional or local transportation, such as taking a quick air taxi from New York to JFK airport,” Converse said. “But I think it’s even more important to reach places that don’t necessarily have an airstrip — delivering groceries, medicine, organ transplants or whatever. Providing more access to services through electric aviation.”

Chance Badon, a junior at Texas A&M University, said he believes AAM is about aviation moving toward sustainability.

“I think electricity is one way that we can use cleaner energy compared to burning fuel for sure. Aircraft with today’s electric technology are much more feasible on the smaller scale,” Badon said. “I know there are a lot of groups trying to take air taxis to the next stage in terms of scaling up. I feel like that’s one very promising direction in aviation innovation.”

Drew Coraccio, from the University of Oklahoma, said he’s read articles from Aerospace America’s biweekly newsletter on AAM, True Mobility.

“It’s definitely important now to be looking at more sustainable and environmentally friendly options. It’s all about battery power density and energy density,” Caraccio said. “Most of these operations are still very small scale, even experimental, and are aiming at scaling up operations now to provide services.”

Nimit Berry, of the UPES university in Dehradun, India, said he completed a course about urban air mobility at his school.

“Urban air mobility will maybe include a pilot on board or not, as vehicles become more autonomous in urban areas,” Berry said. “Maybe they will take you from your home to the airport, or the office, or deliver packages.”

Some students, like Steven Nittel, a master’s degree candidate at FH Joanneum University in Austria, were skeptical of the lofty goals put forth by the AAM industry. Nittel said he saw an eVTOL on temporary display at his school — a aircraft from Germany-based Volocopter.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” Nittel said. “As engineers, we also learn about the limitations, especially for electric systems. The power and efficiency margins are very narrow for electric air mobility within an urban environment, and they’ve been telling us this is improving for a decade now.”

Still, he says, “the concept is interesting,” but “it needs to be safe in an urban environment – especially the multicopters, compared to a helicopter, which is pretty safe because it has autorotation.”

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