Dr Neil Calder attended the inaugural Global Urban Air Summit, held last month at Farnborough International Exhibition and Conference Centre to learn about the global challenges facing urban air mobility and how it can shape the future of air travel.
At a school reunion a couple of years ago, my old school friends were expecting me to be telling them about developments in ‘flying cars’. There is many a true word spoken in jest though, as ‘urban air mobility’ is a term which is rapidly gaining traction within the aerospace sector.
It’s appropriate to try to separate the substance from the hype and to this end, Farnborough International Limited ran its Global Urban Air Summit event in September to bring airframers, regulators and operators together in order to define the next steps for this emerging sector.
The current momentum in electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) has been driven by the confluence of a number of technologies: electric/hybrid propulsion systems, artificial intelligence in flight control, and unmanned traffic management (UTM). Around 100km is the maximum viable electric flight range with current battery technology, and the Li-ion technology is expected to be dominant for the next 6-8 years, in line with the automotive EV sector. Noise management is going to be a limiting factor, and is driving novel propulsion configurations, such as Volocopter’s 18-rotor design. Vehicle technology is not the main issue though, as the crucial hurdle is public acceptance of pilotless flight: the business models only work with autonomous flight and traffic management.
There are between 150-200 declared designs for ‘air taxis’ today; many from start-ups, with an expectation that maybe only 5-6 of these will ultimately be successful. The spirit of adventure is seemingly attractive to investors, however, as there is an estimated $1 billion in current circulation within these ventures. It’s becoming obvious that any constructor also needs to be creating the infrastructure within which their products will be used. Aircraft companies also need to suddenly become property managers or partner with one.
The first applications of point-to-point mobility using eVTOLs are already happening. EHang in Guangzhou launched a service in February 2018 and a partnership of Volocopter and Skyports is launching in Singapore October 2019. Terrestrial mobility company, Uber, is now testing the market dynamic with its Uber Copter service linking downtown Manhattan with John F. Kennedy International Airport. Commercial operation beyond these pilot schemes for intracity links is widely expected around 2023, so the game is going to change in this domain soon. Exponential growth is widely predicted after that, and there is talk of an eventual trillion-dollar market.
Timescales for achieving early commercial operations are significantly shorter than those for the next-generation single-aisle aircraft, which had previously been considered to be the ‘next big thing’ in civil aviation. Both Boeing and Airbus have a stake in the urban mobility game, however, and are taking a very keen interest in fostering the range of smaller players.
It looks like city applications will be driven by politics, not economics, such as the intent for a demonstration network to coincide with Expo 2020 Dubai, with a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ approach, but there is still controversy around whether the business model is solving congestion or convenience. Transit time is cited by Boeing as main driver.
Founded by Stephen Fitzpatrick, CEO of one of the UK’s largest energy companies, Bristol-based Vertical Aerospace is aiming to revolutionise air travel by making it personal, on-demand and carbon-free. The company has been working closely with certification authorities from the outset to develop aircraft aligned with type certification requirements and has already flown a prototype last year. This has brought in a partnership with Honeywell for flight control and will be integrated next year into an aircraft expected to go forward for certification by 2023.