According to the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2017 report, the world’s population is expected to grow to 8.5 billion people by 2030, with 68% living in urban areas. In 2018, the urban population around the world increased to 4.2 billion as compared to 751 million in 1950. With a larger population dwelling in urban areas, transportation systems need to be efficiently managed to enable mass mobility. Cities around the globe are, hence, looking for alternative modes of transportation to solve issues associated with traffic congestion.
Driven by the need to avoid frequent road Jams in densely populated cities around the world, tentative steps are being taken into the vertical dimension. The vision to revolutionize mobility within metropolitan areas is one of the most exciting frontiers in modern aviation. Urban Air Mobility or UAM is a new system for air passenger and cargo transportation within a metropolitan area (including operations over densely populated urban areas). It is expected that urban air mobility with the use of autonomous drones, will offer advantages such as decreased pollution level, reduced transport time, and reduce strain on existing transport systems.
The FAA estimates 545,000 commercial drones will be in use by the end of 2020. These drones will be performing real commercial tasks – they’ll deliver packages, transport people, conduct industrial inspections and provide emergency assistance. According to recent NASA-commissioned market studies, by 2030 as many as 500 million flights a year for package delivery services and 750 million flights a year for air metro services could make UAM a profitable, relevant enterprise.
USAF is also looking for UAM as their future requirement. “There have been significant advancements in Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) aircraft as well as traditional rotorcraft design that may provide solutions to the challenge. In addition, the significant private sector investment that could be leveraged for this military mission is the personal air vehicle (PAV) and urban air mobility (UAM) efforts. These efforts have been focused on urban operations for on-demand civilian transport and have many parallel design requirements to that desired under this SBIR but with some modifications to meet the military mission.”
The vehicle is to be unmanned, low-cost and capable of flying two to four military personnel 100 miles at speeds above 100 knots for combat search and rescue, personnel recovery, and special operations missions. Initially, it’s not expected these vehicles would expand on the capabilities provided by other aircraft, except perhaps in reducing acoustic signature. Rather, the Air Force hopes to reduce costs through procuring “attritable,” or relatively expendable, aircraft that have much lower operating and life cycle costs, Daniel Goddard, acting deputy director of the Aerospace Systems Directorate at AFRL, told Avionics International.
In May, the Pentagon’s Small Business and Innovation Research program unveiled an Air Force effort to develop a personnel recovery/transport vehicle that may dovetail with commercial urban air mobility efforts. “In supporting the 2018 National Defense Strategy there is a need to deploy, survive, operate, maneuver, and regenerate in all domains while under attack in theaters throughout the globe,” according to the May SBIR announcement.
Challenges for UAM
Still, achieving success with UAM is a challenge with a number of technological, infrastructural and legal hurdles. Political, economic, social, technological, and legal factors are the major challenges that all countries adopting urban air mobility need to resolve. While the most visible activities are vehicle projects, the realization of UAM requires breakthroughs in airspace, operations, regulation and community integration. Urban air mobility operations should be economically scaled to meet high-demand operations with minimal fixed costs. There must be significant investments from research institutes, industries, academia, and governments.
Urban Air Mobility (UAM) is a set of technologies and services that enables on-demand and scheduled low-altitude transport of passengers and goods in urban and suburban environments. eVTOLs (electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, also known as air taxis) are considered by many to be the future of civil, private, and military aviation. Based on electric propulsion, this technology makes it possible to develop air mobility and open up the possibilities for exploiting this new space (flying taxis, deliveries, etc.). Initially, eVTOL transport will cover shorter range, intra-urban distances; as vehicle technologies mature, eVTOLs will likely be able to serve longer routes
First of all, choosing the right technology for each use case is central to the nascent industry. It is yet to be determined what the first drone for urban air traffic will actually look like. The most promising architectures include multi- and quadrocopters, tilt-wingers, electrical vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircrafts as well as hybrid constructions. While the former types are particularly suitable for inner-city operations in confined spaces, the fast flying vertical starters are ideal for use between longer distances.
Another crucial factor for the emerging urban air mobility market is the appropriate infrastructure: eVTOL landing sites, charging infrastructures and maintenance facilities are among the key enablers for successful operational business models. Furthermore, urban aircraft require a safe and unobstructed landing zone that needs to be approved by the authorities.
Defining and developing Urban Mobility solutions is a complex undertaking, requiring coordination and collaboration across industries, regulatory agencies and other communities of interest. Establishing broad agreement on the requirements, standards and regulations of Urban Mobility will accelerate the path to unlocking the benefits of aviation for all of us and, ultimately, the reshaping of our urban environments, says BELL.
NASA experts have identified the technical and bureaucratic barriers that must be overcome, including significant legal, regulatory, infrastructure and weather constraints, along with concerns about public perception related to noise, pollution and safety. We were able to do this in part because we’d already been working on two remotely piloted aircraft research efforts–one for safely integrating larger-sized vehicles (55 pounds and up, flying higher than 500 feet) into the same airspace where commercial airliners fly, and another for safely managing smaller drones flying at the lower altitudes not routinely controlled by the FAA.
Drones has many could be hacked if not secured properly, posing dangers when they’re flying above a crowd of people or a busy highway. At the Atlantic Council on Dec. 11, Roper also said he wants the Air Force to disseminate its non-mission critical cybersecurity technologies to commercial companies–technologies such as those developed under AFRL’s Agile and Resilient Embedded Systems (ARES) program. The latter features an embedded cybersecurity system for the service’s drones so that drone experts “don’t have to be cybersecurity experts as well to make their drones difficult to hack,” Roper said.
While it is tempting to leap straight to all the amazing new vehicle technology, we must start with the operational framework. How will the system work? What is the mission that needs to be accomplished? What environment will we be working within? First, we plan to be operating in urban areas, in and around a lot of people. This comes with a safety expectation that protects both passengers and people on the ground, even in failure scenarios. It will also require an affordable solution accessible by most people. This is critical to acceptance – why would people accept aircraft operating in their neighborhood if they can’t take advantage of them?
However, for air taxis to gain public approval amidst this environment of increased scrutiny, regulators and manufacturers will have to convince the public they are safe – both for passengers and those on the ground. The Canadian company Horizon Aircraft says the early eVTOL passenger models used in commercial operations should have safety records equal to those in the commercial aviation sector to prevent accidents and fatalities. According to the company, the global spotlight on the first air taxis will be sufficiently intense that any accidents and safety risks would set the industry back years in terms of passenger confidence and regulatory approval.
Another critical component of acceptance is managing the acoustic signature of ODM aircraft. One of the greatest hindrances to vertical lift operations in cities today is noise. To succeed in urban environments, breakthrough reductions in vehicle noise generation are a must. Beyond the environment driving vehicle and operating requirements, there are myriad operating details to consider, including vertiport locations, charging stations, ground safety protocols, secure passenger identification and access, and more. We also cannot ignore normal aviation operational requirements for vehicle identification, communication and separation in a potentially more constrained airspace, or standard requirements and practices for maintenance, inspections and continued airworthiness.
To realize this vision, Bell sees four areas of focus:
The foundation of this solution is a network of vertiports, designated take-off and landing areas where aircraft will pick up and drop off passengers or cargo. These vertiports act as nodes in the network, and can be built on top of buildings and parking structures, limiting the need for ground-level real-estate. Unlike ground-based or ground-tethered transportation options, vertiports will not require miles of physical infrastructure. This makes them highly cost-effective to deploy and allows for substantial freedom in expanding and optimizing the air mobility network without disrupting and displacing existing ground-based activities.
VTOL aircraft will travel, on-demand, from vertiport to vertiport, providing fast, quiet, comfortable transportation over crowded urban landscapes. A model informed by current ride-sharing systems will help ensure availability and convenience, while making ridership cost-effective for all. We are currently partnering with groups like Uber who will help define, develop and pilot these on-demand mobility (ODM) operating models. Similar operating models will also augment existing package logistics systems.
Flight control systems
Aircraft will use predetermined flight paths to travel from vertiport to vertiport. Along the way, autonomous flight control systems will engage with each other to manage traffic flow, avoid collisions, and ensure safe, secure, efficient flights. This will require seamless operation between aircraft flight control systems and airspace control software. Existing airspace system infrastructure, along with developing systems, like those in design by NASA in partnership with the FAA, should develop ensure the needs and considerations of urban air mobility are represented to allow for the future of this ecosystem.
Aircraft technology and design
On-demand mobility will require new breeds of aircraft, employing new technologies to fulfill the mission. These aircraft will need to be lightweight, cost-effective, and employ simple, reliable propulsion systems. Because they are intended for use in urban environments, where air quality and noise pollution are important considerations, they will employ electric or hybrid distributed propulsion systems and new, quiet proprotor solutions. Aircraft will continue to evolve in design over time, and regulations must evolve to enable innovation in the service of community needs without sacrificing safety expectations.
The challenge we face today is developing a new breed of distributed propulsion aircraft that target the same benefits as a tiltrotor – namely the combination of VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) capability and high-speed flight – but that employ much simpler propulsion systems and an imperative to make them affordable enough for large scale commercial use.
NASA to host grand challenge for evolving system safety standards
NASA’s vision of UAM is that of a safe and efficient air transportation system where everything from small package delivery drones to passenger-carrying air taxis is operating above populated areas. In 2020, NASA is hosting a UAM ecosystem-wide challenge for participants to execute system level safety and integration scenarios within a robust and relevant environment. The goal of this first in a series of UAM Grand Challenges, which we are calling GC-1, is to promote public confidence in UAM safety and facilitate community-wide learning while capturing the public’s imagination.
For Grand Challenge 1 (GC‐1), NASA believes the critical components are: airworthy vehicles; interfaces between vehicles and a basic UAM Traffic Management system; a set of common safety and integration scenarios; a common set of data collection capabilities; and a set of common range requirements to support participation by non‐NASA test range providers. Providers of air traffic management systems will also have an opportunity to show how well their software monitors airspace that’s shared by air taxis, drones and more traditional aircraft.
Currently the FAA self‐certifies the current (conventional) ATM system through the judicious procurement of products and services under a variety of standards (e.g., DO‐278A, DO‐264, DO‐200B etc.). It is unclear what, if any, specific standards and certification process may be applied to UAM ATM systems and services.
An example yardstick for the success of the Grand Challenge will center around the ability of the scenarios to develop quality data that is valuable to the FAA, certification bodies, standards groups, and for general requirements development.
Data is the key, especially in autonomy e.g., Machine Learning Models, Analytics, etc. Documenting the datasets used to train (safety‐critical) autonomous algorithms is fundamental to ensuring the integrity and reproducibility of system behavior. Additionally, the quality of the data used to train the algorithm (or develop a model) directly influences the correctness and usability of the algorithm and its results.
For GC‐1 and GC‐2, NASA welcomes submissions from all vehicle types (STOL, hybrid electric etc.) and configurations (e.g., all‐electric, hybrid electric, gas, etc.) in order to better scope the grand challenge effort.
The key purpose of urban air mobility is to facilitate intracity transportation to reduce the strain on existing urban mobility solutions. Currently, with the limited availability of high-powered, lightweight lithium-ion batteries and the infrastructure required for the setting up of charging points for these batteries, the majority of autonomous aircraft manufacturers are in the research & development phase, leaving only a handful of players to deploy their autonomous aircraft for intracity transportation.
Lilium (Germany) has developed the Lilium Jet, an electric vertical take-off and landing jet with a cruising speed of 300 km/h and a range of 300 km. The company plans to deploy this jet for intracity transportation initially, and for intercity transportation in the near future. Other aircraft players such as Pipistrel, Bell, Hyundai Motors, Volocopter, and EHang are also planning to develop autonomous aircraft for intracity transportation. Passenger drones post their social acceptance, are likely to be used for intercity air transportation by 2030.
Urban Air Mobility Market
The urban air mobility market is projected to grow from USD 2.6 billion in 2020 to USD 9.1 billion by 2030, at a CAGR of 13.5% from 2020 to 2030. The UAM market is predicted be a $20 trillion market between 2040 to 2050, according to Morgan Stanley.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the UAM supply chain is fairly impacted. The spread of COVID-19 in the US and EU is expected to have a negative impact due to lockdowns at research & development facilities of UAM vehicles. For instance, Uber offloaded its Elevate unit to Joby Aviation in December 2020, the company that was at the forefront of launching on demand aviation in a few cities by 2023. The lockdown in Asia Pacific has resulted in business loss to many upcoming startups in the UAM industry. Many startups have failed to continue working in the space due to delays in development and loss of capital. The commercialization of UAM seems delayed by a year compared to pre-COVID-19 conditions.
Based on range, the market has been segmented into intercity and intracity transportation. The intercity segment is projected to lead the market during the forecast period, owing to large number of platforms being used for intercity travel, and the cost of platform being significantly high compared to intracity platforms.
Based on component, the urban air mobility market has been segmented into infrastructure and platform. The infrastructure segment of the urban air mobility market is projected to at the highest CAGR from 2025 to 2030. This growth is attributed to the increasing deployment of eVTOL aircraft for intracity travel leading to an increase in the need for infrastructure.
By platform architecture, the fixed-wing hybrid segment is projected to grow at the highest CAGR from 2025 to 2030, owing to its higher stability compared to rotary wing eVTOL. To carry passengers, the platform needs higher stability to ensure safety of passengers on board, especially for remotely piloted or fully autonomous aircraft.
The Europe urban air mobility market is projected to grow at the highest rate during the forecast period. Countries in this region, such as Germany, UK, and France, are investing heavily in the development and procurement of advanced eVTOL systems for commercial operations. Advancements in the manufacturing capability of emerging economies in this region will drive the market. Additionally, the ever-increasing trend of automation and globalization in these countries are fueling the growth of the European urban air mobility market.
Recent technological developments, use of UAVs in various civil & commercial applications, and significant investments in emerging economies drive the urban air mobility market.
Various players such as Wisk (US), Lilium (Germany), Ehang (China.), Volocopter (Germany), and Airbus A Cubed (US), among others, are the key players operating in the urban air mobility market. These players are focused on development of UAM platform. Drones are increasingly replacing small manned aircraft as they have higher endurance and can be operated remotely by human operators or autonomously by onboard computers. The demand for faster delivery of packages by consumers in the e-commerce industry is also increasing, with customers willing to pay extra for same-day delivery. The recent technological developments in urban air mobility hold a promising future where cities will adopt the next generation of transportation systems using unmanned systems.
Some of the key players profiled in the urban air mobility market report include Wisk Aero (US), Lilium (Germany), EHang (China), Jaunt Air Mobility (US) and Volocopter (Germany). The players are mostly engaged in new product launches & developments and having a strong global presence will enhance their position in the urban air mobility market. These players are primarily focusing on entering new markets by launching technologically advanced and cost-effective platforms and infrastructure. Apart from new product launches & developments, these players also adopted the partnerships contracts, & agreements strategy.
In November 2020, Wisk Aero is teaming with NASA to focus on the safe integration of autonomous aircraft systems into Urban Air Mobility applications at a national level. In September 2020, Lilium partnered with Tavistock development and the City of Orlando to establish the first region in the US to develop vertiport. The first US Vertiport to be located at Orlando’s Aerotropolis in Lake Nona.
In September 2020, Lilium partnered with Dusseldorf and Cologne/Bonn airports to explore how the two airports can become hubs within a regional air mobility network spanning North Rhine- Westphalia. In July 2020, AMSL aero announced that they will be moving into the Narromine Aerodrome Industrial Park and are planning to hire five to ten people. The company was able to expand to the industrial park to build essential testing facilities due to AUD USD 950,000.00 grant from the New South Wales Regional Investment Attraction program
In January 2020, Bell has revealed an evolved design for its Nexus air taxi, with a new “4EX” version, using fewer ducted fans and a longer wing than its predecessor, as well as fully electrically powered.
In 2019, the Vertical Flight Society’s eVTOL.news directory listed 100 eVTOL aircraft projects in various stages of development. Flagship pilot projects are already scheduled to go live in cities like Dubai, Singapore, Los Angeles and Dallas in the early 2020s, with Roland Berger predicting about 3,000 passenger drones in use by 2025 as the first commercially used urban air mobility routes start operating. Over the following decades, the market is expected to grow exponentially: By 2050, the authors estimate close to 100,000 passenger drones could be on the move worldwide and serve as air taxis, airport shuttles and intercity flight services.