Ahead of the 2023 RAeS President’s Future of Flight Summit, AEROSPACE put some of the most commonly asked questions regarding Urban Air Mobility and Regional Air Mobility to DARRELL SWANSON and JAREK ZYCH from EA Maven.
AEROSPACE: Which global cities are leading in the advancement of air mobility?
EA Maven: Cities leading the way in AAM typically host original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) as their key players. Among these cities and regions, San Francisco stands out, being home to companies like Joby and Archer. Noteworthy cities also include Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Singapore, Paris and Coventry. However, London would need to reconsider its aviation policy in order to capitalise on AAM, as its current aviation plan essentially presents limitations on such developments.
The big numbers
EA Maven was commissioned by UKRI to undertake an analysis of 20 potential routes across the UK featuring a mix of eVTOL and eCTOL aircraft with the findings above. The full report can be downloaded via https://www.ukri.org/publications/market-assessment-for-advanced-air-mobility-in-the-uk/ (EA Maven)
AEROSPACE: Which urban and regional routes offer viable business opportunities in the context of AAM?
EA Maven: Determining successful routes for both UAM and RAM requires a nuanced evaluation, considering various factors that influence viability. Key considerations that impact route success include:
Operational Infrastructure: the available aircraft, airspace management, and landing infrastructure significantly shape route viability. Adequate support from system participants is essential.
Geographical and Physical Characteristics: The region’s physical attributes, such as challenging terrains (mountains, congested road systems), and underdeveloped transportation infrastructure impact the feasibility of routes.
Social Perception and Policy Influence: Public acceptance and how policymakers perceive the societal value of AAM play a pivotal role in route success. Routes with limited public transport options and lengthy travel times stand to benefit the most from AAM services. The increased speed of AAM can enhance travel utility, especially if the fare remains affordable for a broad segment of travellers. Support for such services is likely to emerge in these scenarios.
However, it’s crucial for the utility of AAM services to be accessible to a diverse range of society. If the benefits are concentrated among a limited group, there’s a risk of opposition from unserved segments of the population. This opposition can impact political decisions, potentially leading to difficulties in gaining approval for new landing infrastructure. This negative feedback loop can impede progress for all parties involved.
In summary, successful AAM routes depend on a delicate balance of operational readiness, regional characteristics, and social acceptance. Ensuring broad accessibility and societal benefits will enhance the likelihood of route success, fostering a positive environment for the advancement of Advanced Air Mobility services.
AEROSPACE: Are there plans for airline shuttle services catering to premium passengers using eVTOLs?
EA Maven: There is a noticeable surge of interest within the business aviation community to transition to eco-friendly aviation methods due to mounting pressure from environmentally conscious clients and global governmental carbon reduction initiatives.
Interestingly, the affluent travellers are poised to drive investments in vehicles and infrastructure necessary for the AAM industry’s development. This pattern mirrors the history of commercial aviation, where wealthier and business travellers initially embraced air travel, eventually paving the way for broader market access through lower fares and increased capacity.
As the AAM industry matures, a similar trend is foreseeable, contingent upon the speed of aircraft integration. Once commoditisation reaches a certain threshold, the emergence of electric low-cost carriers (eLCCs) is likely. Notably, carriers like Flexjet are currently targeting premium passengers, raising questions about the sustainability of this business model amidst the expanding AAM landscape.
Shaping public perceptions
Use of eVTOLs by EMS operators could assist in shaping public perceptions of this new air sector. (Dufour Aerospace)
AEROSPACE: How could the use of eVTOLs for Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and parapublic missions impact public perception of AAM?
EA Maven: This has the potential to significantly influence public perception of AAM through several key avenues. Prominent use cases such as police, fire, and emergency rescue operations can serve as impactful showcases for the capabilities of AAM vehicles.
These missions involve urgent response scenarios where eVTOLs could showcase their agility, speed, and efficiency compared to conventional means.
However, challenges exist, particularly when employing larger eVTOLs for such missions. The energy density of current batteries limits the mission endurance compared to that of traditional helicopters. Furthermore, hovering operations during police and air ambulance tasks may generate noise concerns, potentially affecting public acceptance.
One intriguing use case involves automated eVTOLs delivering emergency personnel swiftly to incident sites, providing immediate critical care while additional transport is arranged. These compact eVTOLs could offer a valuable opportunity for EMS operators.
AEROSPACE: What considerations are being addressed regarding noise, visual pollution, and urban planning?
EA Maven: Noise reduction stands as a pivotal aspect of fostering social engagement and acceptance. A collective effort from OEMs is directed towards minimising noise by strategies such as lower prop-tip speeds and distributed propulsion systems. These innovations aim to curtail noise emissions and enhance AAM’s compatibility with urban environments. Urban planning for AAM infrastructure introduces a unique challenge. Currently, local authorities lack specific guidelines to evaluate planning applications for vertiports. Notably, the UK CAA is actively working on guidance for vertiports, particularly those situated at airports. This approach aligns with that of EASA, which is developing design criteria for stand-alone vertiports. Meanwhile, the US FAA is taking an approach that could impose slightly more rigorous vertiport design standards.
Visual pollution, or the impact of AAM vehicles on the urban landscape, also requires attention. While the adage ‘if you can’t hear it, you won’t see it’ holds true for overflights at altitude, it may not be as applicable in bustling city-based vertiport scenarios. Navigating this aspect is crucial to maintain the aesthetics of urban environments.
Efforts to address these considerations extend to collaborative initiatives. The Community Air Mobility Initiative (CAMI), based in the US, is actively engaging with local authorities to establish town planning standards that can guide the integration of AAM into urban landscapes. This collaborative approach aims to ensure that urban planning aligns with the unique demands and challenges of AAM implementation.
The development of vertiports presents a host of logistical and planning challenges. (Ferrovial)
AEROSPACE: What designs are being explored for vertiports?
EA Maven: Various designs for vertiports are currently being explored, ranging from simple vertistops to more elaborate concepts with substantial passenger capacity. An intriguing example was showcased at the Uber Elevate event in 2018, where a multistorey vertiport structure was proposed featuring six automated stands with synchronised elevators. This setup aimed to manage a high volume of aircraft operations within a relatively small space, approximately 3.5 acres. It’s worth noting that the practicality of such an ambitious design could potentially lead to challenges with ground congestion, akin to a significant public transport network, or require strategic placement near major motorways.
While rooftop vertiports are an interesting prospect, their adoption may not become commonplace due to inherent challenges. Retrofitting existing buildings for vertical transportation and infrastructure compatibility poses difficulties, especially if not factored into initial construction. Moreover, taller existing buildings may lack the necessary capacity to accommodate a commercially viable volume of aircraft operations, favouring surface vertiports.
The development of surface vertiports presents its own set of challenges, notably identifying suitable locations that adhere to planning regulations and maintain positive relationships with neighbouring communities. One intriguing avenue is the integration of vertiports with shopping malls, capitalising on the robust public transport connectivity and ample surface area these locations often offer. However, concerns arise regarding the viability of the traditional shopping mall model given the rise of e-commerce.
The concept of mobile ‘pop-up’ vertiports has precedence in the helicopter industry, such as the Silverstone Grand Prix, where it becomes one of the busiest heliports globally. Yet, the challenge of energy supply for such sporadic events is significant. To mitigate this, pop-up operations may need to be strategically linked to vertiports, covering a maximum of 50% of their operating distance from the popup site. This approach factors in the empty return journey, which could inflate operational costs.
AEROSPACE: How are integrated transport solutions being developed to link airports, vertiports, and transportation networks?
EA Maven: The overarching principle driving these efforts is the recognition that vertiports should enhance, rather than compete with, existing public transport systems. By adhering to this principle, local authorities are more likely to grant planning permissions for AAM infrastructure.
A pivotal aspect of this approach involves strategically situating vertiports in close proximity to passengers’ true points of origin or destinations, which are well-connected by robust public transport options. The ideal scenario envisions passengers arriving at vertiports via active modes of transport such as walking, biking, or on approved scooters. Subsequently, they seamlessly transition to an interconnected web of public transportation modes, which may include trams, trains, buses, and underground systems.
AEROSPACE: What standards are being established for charging infrastructure?
EA Maven: In recent years, the eVTOL industry has been grappling with the establishment of standardised norms for charging infrastructure and landing pads. This situation has evoked parallels to the VHS vs Betamax dilemma from the past. Fortunately, this competitive landscape has begun to stabilise, recognising that prolonged competition is counterproductive and could lead to increased costs for infrastructure providers. These costs would inevitably trickle down to AAM aircraft operators and their passengers.
Envision a scenario where a vertiport operator contends with an array of eight to ten different plug types and voltage requirements, or a more complex situation where there are ten distinct battery variants necessitating swapping, charging, and storage. Such complexity undermines operational efficiency and poses logistical challenges.
The aviation industry’s commitment to safety underscores the necessity for standardised practices. Encouragingly, the trajectory suggests a shift toward achieving this goal. As the industry matures, the momentum appears to be leaning towards the development of coherent and harmonised standards that can streamline the infrastructure and requirements.
AEROSPACE: Is there enough focus on ensuring wheelchair accessibility for AAM solutions?
EA Maven: While a limited number of OEMs are presently addressing the needs of passengers with reduced mobility or hidden disabilities, the landscape is evolving. Notably, the Vertical Flight Society orchestrated a student design competition aimed at encouraging budding aircraft engineers to incorporate the requirements of such passengers into their future aircraft designs.
Considering that approximately 20% of the global travelling public faces some form of mobility challenge, it stands as a judicious approach for both OEMs and operators to integrate these considerations into their strategies.
In terms of landing infrastructure, existing regulations stipulate minimum standards to accommodate passengers with reduced mobility in areas such as terminals. However, the true test lies in surpassing these baseline requirements and cultivating infrastructure that is genuinely accessible to all individuals.
AEROSPACE: What security measures/passenger screening is envisioned for AAM?
EA Maven: The current regulatory landscape does not uniformly mandate traditional passenger screening for aircraft below a specific weight threshold. Presently, this threshold stands at around 5,700kg with reference to 19 passengers. Given that many eVTOLs are anticipated to fall below this weight limit and often carry a maximum of four or five passengers, operators may not be obligated to implement formal passenger security screening.
However, the decision to institute formal passenger security screening for AAM flights hinges on a multitude of factors, including perceived security risks. A significant challenge lies in the potential time added to the overall passenger journey by implementing traditional security processes. This could increase the perceived inconvenience of using AAM services. While prudent infrastructure planning should account for the possibility of traditional passenger screening, the industry is actively working on innovative solutions to mitigate these challenges.
Emerging systems, such as walk-through scanners utilising millimeter-wave background scatter screening technology, present a promising avenue. These systems, coupled with augmented reality glasses worn by security personnel, could streamline the screening process. In essence, the envisioned security measures for AAM are shaped by a comprehensive evaluation of operational and security considerations, striving to strike a balance between safety and passenger convenience.
AEROSPACE: What are the power requirements and safety considerations for charging eVTOLs and potential use of swappable batteries?
EA Maven: The power requirements for AAM present potential challenges for both the existing electrical grid and the broader industry. With megawatt-level power demands, it is evident that managing this energy consumption will be a key hurdle for the sector. A parallel can be drawn to the electric vehicle market in the UK, which faces limitations due to the scarcity of charging infrastructure. A similar bottleneck could occur in the AAM industry without innovative solutions.
One potential approach involves regional airports assuming a role as energy hubs. These airports could evolve into grid-level participants by establishing advanced energy storage and distribution systems.
An intriguing example of collaboration comes from companies like Rolls-Royce and others, which are pioneering the ‘Energy as a Service’ concept.
This model involves tailoring energy systems to meet the specific needs of an airport or vertiport based on meticulous demand modelling.
Regarding the potential use of swappable batteries, there is a valid rationale for considering this approach as they offer a methodical means of recharging, potentially mitigating some of the challenges associated with rapid charging. However, significant operational hurdles must be overcome for this concept to succeed.
Infrastructure providers would need to allocate space for battery storage and manage the intricate battery swapping process. Moreover, since different OEMs might develop distinct battery designs, the issue of compatibility arises. Vertiports could potentially become congested with stored batteries, raising concerns about efficient space utilisation.
A key concern would involve ensuring the proper installation of batteries by ground-handling agents. These individuals are often the lowest-paid personnel on an airfield, potentially introducing reliability and safety challenges.
eVTOL AAM aircraft are increasingly leaping off the drawing board and taking flight. In 2023, eVTOLs have appeared in the flying displays at both the Paris Air Show (Volocopter) and AirVenture Oshkosh (Wisk, illustrated). (Stephen Bridgewater/RAeS)
AEROSPACE: What are the expected turnaround times for AAM vehicles?
EA Maven: Turnaround times hold paramount importance in ensuring operational efficiency and commercial viability. The speed of these turnarounds hinges on several key factors but predominantly the energy requirements for the upcoming mission, which is intrinsically influenced by the recharging system’s capacity. Operators face a pivotal decision point wherein they can opt for higher battery recharge speeds, potentially leading to expedited turnarounds, but at the cost of accelerating battery wear and, consequently, necessitating higher fares to compensate for reduced battery lifespan.
Vertiport operators are also acutely attuned to turnaround times, particularly during peak hours. The presence of aircraft occupying stands for charging or awaiting landing slots at subsequent vertiports can significantly curtail potential revenue generation. As a proactive measure, we, at EA Maven, posit that the AAM industry should embrace an early adoption of a slot management system.
However, we advocate a departure from the existing system of slot allocation, control and ownership that can foster inefficiencies, similar to those observed within the legacy commercial aviation sector.
AEROSPACE: Is sufficient effort being made to protect and utilise regional airports and GA airfields as hubs for AAM?
EA Maven: It appears that insufficient effort is being exerted to safeguard and harness the potential of regional airports and GA airfields. At EA Maven, we conducted an evaluation of 32 airports affiliated with the Regional and Business Airports group to gauge the untapped potential of establishing air routes between these airports.
We envision that by extending our analysis to encompass additional commercial airports and smaller GA airfields in proximity to larger urban centres, we will likely unearth a noteworthy array of potentially viable routes. This perspective underscores the significance of nurturing and safeguarding smaller airfields, recognising that aviation often takes root at grassroots levels. The smaller airfields of today possess the latent capacity to evolve into commercially viable electric aviation hubs in the future.
AEROSPACE: When can we anticipate the launch of the first commercial AAM air taxi services?
EA Maven: The inaugural services are expected to commence in San Francisco with Joby Aviation poised to lead this charge. Subsequently, Archer Aviation is projected to swiftly follow suit, with a potential launch date around 2024 or 2025. In the wake of these initial launches, we can anticipate the emergence of additional air taxi services. The sequencing of these subsequent operations will be influenced by the priority of aircraft orders and the targeted regions they intend to serve. As the sector gains momentum, a cascade of further commercial ventures is likely to unfold, shaping the dynamic landscape of AAM.