Struggling infrastructure is draining economies and hindering human potential around the world. According to the INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard, congestion cost drivers in the United States more than $87bn in 2018 whilst emerging economies such as Russia, Turkey, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil are even worse effected, ranking as the top five most-gridlocked nations. For instance, in Moscow, INRIX estimates that every driver loses 210 hours to congestion every year.
Urban flight is not a new idea. Helicopters and personal jets have been used by the wealthy for decades, but due to their high cost and large carbon footprint, they are impractical for the mass market. However, a new form of Urban Aerial Mobility systems could overcome these barriers, supplementing existing transportation networks and providing accessible service by air. In doing so, they could become a core component of future urban transport systems.
Urban Aerial Mobility (UAM) is ‘the movement of goods and people through the skies’ in urban environments. Given its potential to unlock the elusive ‘third dimension’ of transportation, aerial transport could ease this pressure and positively transform lives by reducing congestion and removing people and goods off roads.
For instance, UAM could enable the rapid delivery of packages and enable a form of ‘Air Metro’ where public transport in the sky helps take the strain from buses, metros and subway systems. It could even see the rise of ‘Air Taxis’, a door-to-door ridesharing operation that allows consumers to call vertical take-off and landing to specific drop off locations throughout a city. Indeed, electric vertical take-off and landing (EVTOL) and autonomous flight systems provide safer and cleaner mobility options, both key components to the successful growth of cities. For instance, recent aerial mobility models comparing distances, passenger load and energy consumption, found that an EVTOL aircraft outperformed even an electric car for distances further than 100km.
Several companies are already far down the road of developing the technology capable of redefining urban transport. For example, Volocopter, a German-based UAM company, recently unveiled the world’s first air taxi vertiport in Singapore for completely autonomous flight testing. Founded in 2011 by Stephan Wolf and Alexander Zosel, Volocopter has 150 employees in offices in Germany and Singapore. Their Volocopter has the highest level of safety certification – the EASA international certificate that requires air taxis to be as safe as airliners. And through its 18 electrically powered rotors, the machine is not only very quiet, but is emission free. Having completed its first flight in 2011, the company also has the world’s first permit to fly a manned multicopter.
Also in Germany, Airbus is developing CityAirbus, an all-electric multicopter EVTOL vehicle that has four seats and is autonomously piloted. The full-scale CityAirbus demonstrator had its maiden take-off in May 2019 and currently has a cruising speed of roughly 120 km/h with up to 15 minutes of flight time. Over the next 12 months, Airbus will conclude its evaluation of CityAirbus, incorporating the findings of all of its tests into a next iteration aerial taxi that it will likely aim to scale ready for the mass market.
However, affordability is key to the success of an urban aerial mobility model of the future. Uber Elevate set a goal to reduce the cost of aerial taxi ridesharing to $0.44 per passenger mile (compared to $0.464 per mile to drive your own car) but this is ambitious, particularly due to work that needs to be done in understanding how to govern the complexity of operating more vehicles in the sky.
Although these innovative companies are exploring the concept of personal autonomous flight, if this new form of transport is truly going to take off, clear governance and a solid policy environment is required to support its implementation. The future of aerial mobility is far bigger than the capability of technology, it is directly linked to whether these new systems are able to meet a certifiable safety threshold. However, this threshold has yet to be set.
There are many outstanding questions around pricing, workforce and operational licensing, digital management of guidance – including the ‘3D right-of-way’ – fleet management, cybersecurity and privacy, vehicle design and propulsion, land use and zoning, infrastructure and standardisation, regulation of operations, permitting and tax revenues, and, of course, environmental considerations, that all have to be considered in detail for this new form of transport to take flight.
As Jonathan Hartman, Disruptive Technologies Lead for Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky Innovations’ group explains: “We fundamentally believe that the environment that these vehicles will operate in will be just as important as the vehicle itself.” As such, for Urban Aerial Mobility to become a reality, it is vital that policymakers at all levels come together to talk about decision points that haven’t ever been considered, and to assess the impact on a scale and timeframe unique to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Therefore, to ensure that the potential of technology is not impeded, policymakers and companies must collaborate to ensure both the technology and the passengers are adequately protected.
The City of Los Angeles has emerged as a pioneer of aerospace and in transportation technology. Led by the Mayor’s Office, the City has created an aerial mobility network integrated with its other transportation systems and investments to ‘illuminate early barriers, opportunities and lessons learned, which can be shared across communities.’
Julia Thayne, Associate Director of Mobility Innovation for L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office explains that: “We believe that Urban Aerial Mobility can be a meaningful part of our transportation network, but only if we work hand-in-hand with communities, companies, and cities across the world to ensure that outcomes are safe, secure, sustainable, and equitable.”
Urban Aerial Mobility can only become a meaningful component of next generation urban transportation through collaborative efforts to engage and plan for a future in which the air is fully, yet safely, utilised. To do this requires industry, governmental and public support, but by working together, creating an international effort to draw up guidelines and parameters for use, the future of aerial mobility could change the skies above our cities, forever.