Urban Air Mobility (UAM), most recently referred to as Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) by NASA, is an industry aiming to revolutionise our view and understanding of transportation, reshape the urban and rural landscape and start a new era of sustainable aerial mobility.
Utilising on-demand available aircraft, UAM stakeholders promise to present a solution to traffic congestion, providing an enjoyable and more convenient travel experience.
Electrical vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles, one of the most common vehicle architectures developed for UAM/AAM, are being designed to serve various missions, ranging from connecting intracity stops to transporting passengers between cities, and, maybe one day, countries.
So how did it start, where it is now and why should we care?
The idea of hiring a vehicle (of any kind) originated in the mid-17th Century. In 1635, the Hackney Carriage Acts was the first law controlling horse-drawn carriages for hire in England.
Five years later, Nicolas Sauvage first offered horse-drawn carriages and drivers for hire in Paris. While cars have since been replacing other means of personal transportation, the option of a 'flying car' was being considered as a viable form of travel in the US as early as the 1930s.
In 1933, Eugene Luther ‘Gene’ Vidal, the head of the US Bureau of Air Commerce, publicly announced the Bureau’s plans of developing a safe mass-produced personal aircraft, the aviation equivalent of owning a Model-T Ford automobile.
They aimed to design a vehicle that would cost only $700, calling it the ‘Poor Man's Airplane’. The project advanced as far as having Vidal’s 10-year-old son operating one of the competition winning aircraft, the two-seat Stearman-Hammond Y-1S.
The plan didn’t work in the end, but the idea hasn’t left our minds.
Two-seat Stearman-Hammond Y-1S model designed to become a personal aircraft in the 1930s. Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Some 20 years later, the concept of urban-centred air transportation has been attempted by utilising commercial helicopters.
New York Airways, originally a mail and cargo carrier (1949), became an airline in 1953 first offering scheduled helicopter flights carrying passengers in the United States. The journey from Newark to Wall Street cost $47 in today’s money as opposed to $62 cab ride.
While accidents, noise and air pollution grounded the helicopter airline, today’s technology and customer needs have evolved. The maintenance procedures are less complex recently and green alternatives to fuel are being developed.
Today, we believe the timing is right to revisit the ‘air taxi’ concept! The future for eVTOLs is looking bright, and here is why...
New York Airways helicopter airline was very popular as an airline providing on-demand helicopter service in Boston in the 1950s. Source: Reddit
The Vertical Flight Society has now catalogued over 300 eVTOL aircraft designs in its World eVTOL Aircraft Directory.
Vehicles developed as a part of Urban Air Mobility vary in shapes and sizes, or, using more technical vocabulary, differ based on what mission profile they want to serve.
While many entries include conceptual studies and defunct projects, several aircraft manufacturers made significant progress in design, development and testing of their vehicle.
As of August 2020, a total of 215 different companies and vehicle developers are working on their projects all over the world.
According to the Global UAM Radar and research conducted by Roland Berger, a few cities including Dallas, USA, Guangzhou, China and Paris, France have high ambitions to implement first commercial UAM services in the near-term.
Source: Roland Berger
Among some of the most active and determinant industry players is Volocopter. The German eVTOL manufacturer has conducted numerous test flights as well as public demonstrations, including most recently in Singapore.
As a part of the first manned flight over Marina Bay, the company partnered with UAM infrastructure stakeholders, Skyports, unveiling the world’s first full-scale air taxi vertiport.
The so-called VoloPort is a part of the necessary physical infrastructure required to support eVTOLs operations providing passengers with a safe, secure and seamlessly integrated air taxi experience.
Volocopter is also the first eVTOL developer to be awarded SC-VTOL Design Organisation Approval by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) intending to serve inner-city missions.
As a part of their demonstration flights plan, Volocopter has conducted a piloted trial flight in Marina Bay, Singapore, landing on the world’s first vertiport developed in partnership with Skyports. Source: Volocopter
As another example, Chinese Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV) manufacturer EHang has obtained a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) issued by Transport Canada Civil Aviation (TCCA), enabling the company to routinely conduct trial flights of its EHang 216 AAVs in Québec province.
The company has had much success following consecutive flight approvals from aviation authorities in different countries, including the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the Civil Aviation Authority of Norway and the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
As such, there is a definite positive signal from global regulators keen to develop a supportive regulatory framework for the UAM industry.
Focused on operating low-altitude short-and-medium-haul flights, the company wishes to cater for passenger and medical aid transportation as well as tourism sightseeing.
EHang is keen for their customers to experience a “bird’s eye view” from the air and been providing demonstration flights with a passenger on-board as a part of their thousands of trial and demo flights in 21 cities and 6 countries, including China, the U.S., Austria, Netherlands, Qatar and UAE. Source: EHang
What's in it for me and you
While in some ways UAM will add to the already complex airspace above our heads, it aims to address the issue of heavy traffic congestion that in EU alone costs roughly €100 billion a year.
The vertical take-off and landing manoeuvre makes the eVTOL a superior mobility solution for highly congested cities, eliminating the need to build roads and runways while providing a faster-than-ground transportation service.
Additionally, as humanity keeps advancing existing technology and introduces increased levels of automation, autonomy, and digital innovation, Urban Air Mobility, to our mind, has higher chances of succeeding in the Information Age than it did in the last century.
‘The convergence of technologies, and new business models enabled by the digital revolution, is making it possible to explore this new way for people and cargo to move within our cities’ - said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics research.
It is believed by some that eVTOL aircraft are only being developed for the upper class, although most industry stakeholders keep insisting on making it a safe, sustainable, affordable travel experience for all.
Undeniably, many challenges both technical and those associated with public acceptance (safety, noise, cost etc) are yet to be resolved, but we at the Flight Crowd are determined to support our UAM industry partners as well as work with the public to address their fears and help push the industry forward.
We make it our mission to support a community of UAM enthusiasts and experts and foster a wider public's interest in the mobility industry.
We aim to help make Urban Air Mobility accessible and easy to understand for the general public and will be delighted to have you join us on this journey!