Is Automated & Advanced Air Mobility/Urban Air Mobility Moving to Reality?

Is Automated & Advanced Air Mobility/Urban Air Mobility Moving to Reality?

Advanced Air Mobility
On April 26th, 2023, the FAA issued its updated Concept of Operations Version 2.0 for Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Corridors.  On May 1st, the FAA published a notice in the Federal Register looking for comments on its civil aviation noise policy, specifically calling out unmanned aircraft systems and emerging technology vehicles.

Moreover, NASA’s 2023 research agenda includes “UAM Airspace Research Roadmap, Rev.2.0. Discussion of UAM and Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) dominated the 11th National Aviation System Planning Symposium (NASPS) held May 15-18, 2023.  A takeaway from all this activity is that unmanned aerial technology is real and about to become an actual transportation mode.  But how soon can we expect even a limited “futuristic” urban environment, reminiscent of the Jetson’s cartoon series? 

Investors are currently underwriting a growing number of global manufacturers in AAM technologies.  (One estimate is 500; the FAA reported about 200 at the end of 2021, and another estimate is that 12 are in Southern California alone).  Prototypes are being built and tested and business plans are being drawn up.  Airlines are placing orders so not to be left behind, and states are starting to incorporate these technologies in state aviation and transportation plans.   

To understand this landscape, we first have to untangle a complexity of terminology and concepts:  

Aircraft and Fuel Sources. The promise of UAM/AAM depends on development and reliability of “eVTOLs”, electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that can take off and land vertically as well as cruise horizontally. The range, however, is limited by the battery limitations of current technologies to hour-long flights, or perhaps 100 nautical miles.  So, charging corridors are needed, much like electric cars need highway charging stations when traveling between cities.  An alternative is a hybrid engine of A-1 jet fuel and electric capabilities for increased range. The promise of affordable hydrogen fuel carries a future potential for still longer distance movement.  

Take-off and Landing Sites. Vertiports, vertistops, and vertihubs are where UAM/AAM passengers board and disembark.  A vertiport provides multiple take-off and landing sites, vehicle charging capabilities, and some maintenance.  A vertistop can accommodate one vehicle at a time for takeoffs or landings, and a vertihub is like a fixed-base operator that services general aviation aircraft, crew, and passengers at an airport with multiple sites and repair/maintenance and storage facilities.  

How close are these to reality, though?  Some of the challenges appear daunting but may be solvable.  While there are many questions, the discussion below focuses on air passenger services and economic considerations. We leave AAM applications of cargo and other services to future discussion. 

  • Operator requirements create cost questions.  The FAA ruled that UAM vehicles now require a commercial aviation pilot, not people trained by manufacturers and service providers to operate UAMs.  This takes away one seat from a paying customer in each vehicle and transforms that seat to a cost center, meaning pilots who need to be paid.  Additionally, where will the pilots come from?  Many aviation workforce analyses in recent years have centered on a “pilot shortage” from retirements of Baby Boomers and older Generation X members.  Pay scales will need to rival, if not exceed, airlines, which will drive up costs of UAM fares, or service will a operate at a loss. 

  • The total trip needs to be measured – only then will we understand time savings. One animated presentation contrasted a 1.5-hour daily commute by car to a 15-minute UAM flight time.  All well and good, but this is a contrast of a door-to-door auto commute with one leg of a 3-seat trip, that in reality includes traveling from home to a vertiport, wait time at the vertiport, the 15-minute flight and disembarking, and (possibly) using transit or a TNC to go to the final destination. There still may be considerable time savings in this example, but it will not be 75 minutes per trip twice a day. 

  • Will there be a wait time similar to commuter rail, transit, or airlines?  One vision says no: UAM service will use a single app that seamlessly integrates surface TNC rides on either end with the eVTOL flight.  But what if the eVTOL vehicle is not full – what if only 1 or 2 seats of 3 or 4 are occupied?  Will the eVTOL lift off without a full complement, particularly if a pilot needs to be paid?  Or will it wait until a second, third, and fourth seat is filled?  

  • The cost of infrastructure is unknown.  Estimates for a vertihub range from $2 million to $20 million after accounting for all infrastructure associated with the hub.  Other estimates show costs for a vertiport ranging from $1 to $12 million, and a vertistop starting at about $750,000. Costs depend on facility size, and ability to piggyback or repurpose existing infrastructure, such as urban helipads and General Aviation airport facilities.  

  • UAM has the potential to disrupt other modes of travel.  This is certainly true for current commercial helicopter service, but UAM may also impact commuter rail and high-speed rail (in the U.S., such a disruption could hold back the possible implementation of high-speed rail).  Depending on the price and customers’ willingness to pay, UAM may be limited as a service for the wealthy.  If this is the case, it is possible that rail services will not be disrupted if the only people using it are those who can afford helicopter commuting and recreational transportation.  Of course, UAM may not be viable without broadening demand.  

  • UAM will impact the electric grid.  Again, depending on the facility and location, power generation and electric charging stations will be needed.  An estimate presented at the NASPS submitted that peak demand for a vertiport or vertihub may exceed a peak of 20 MW, which will require significant utility upgrades.  Beyond power, vertiports and vertihubs will require full supporting infrastructure for surface access, power, telecommunications, and fiber optics, as well as water and sewer hookups. 

Beyond the economic and infrastructure issues outlined above, other regulatory and operational issues are equally if not more critical in determining the future of UAM.  These include: 

  • Regulation of Air Space and Safety. The most daunting hurdle may be with Air Traffic Control and the regulation of airspace to establish safe urban travel corridors at multiple altitudes to avoid what will certainly be fatal “traffic accidents” as well as significant property damage.  We are possibly facing multiple uses of air space for passenger traffic and cargo drones using aircraft of varied sizes in metropolitan air space and perhaps national air space.  This raises the question of what insurance companies may require to cover UAM service. 

  • Regulation and Training of Pilots. Additional regulation for training and certification of pilots will be needed until such time as automated aircraft are permitted. 

  • Weather Considerations. Relatively light UAM vehicles will have to be weather resilient, particularly in northeastern and midwestern markets, much like ferry boat operations.  Moreover, weather conditions may cause delays and cancellations of flights requiring companies to provide clear and efficient notification to customers when weather conditions require service cancellation.  Will service providers need to guarantee round trips or will passengers be stranded if weather conditions degrade below safe flying conditions hours after an initial flight? Vertistops, vertiports, and vertihubs may require automated weather observation and monitoring stations. 

  • Fueling. The logistics of fueling will need to be worked out.  In addition to upgrading the power grid, guidance will be needed to regulate who will produce electricity, who owns the delivery systems and who sells the electricity.  Airport Fixed-Base Operators sell fuel, so will they also be allowed to sell electricity?  For vertiports and vertihubs, how will existing fuel taxes and flowage fees be applied?   

  • Local Land Use Regulations. In addition to the FAA, local regulations may encourage or discourage locations of vertistops, vertiport, and vertihubs.  These regulations may lead to prolonged litigation site-by-site, based on correspondence with state and local laws and regulations.  In addition to any new construction, locations could include general aviation (GA) airports, heliports, roof tops, and parking lots.  Rooftops for vertistops, in particular, will require construction standards for weight bearing.  Importantly, GA airports are often long distances from major office parks or downtowns, which will require connecting rides. 

Lastly, issues of equity include: 

  • Access and Affordability. Will new aviation passenger technologies service affluent, ultra-time sensitive customers in urban areas? Will those with middle incomes and residents of rural areas have access to eVTOLs and related technologies?  Metropolitan areas are currently being promoted for their population densities and concentrations of a potentially affluent customer base.  In this respect, it is reminiscent of the early days of broadband, when urban areas were being connected and less dense areas were skipped over due to the expense of connecting a dispersed population and business community. Rural access may be particularly important for emergency response situations.   

  • Noise and Community Impacts. AAM technologies generate less noise but will not be noiseless – how will a new vertistop or vertiport affect the quality of life for nearby communities?  (It may be a relief if it replaces an active heliport.) 

  • First Entrants and Market Capture. Investors, manufacturers, and airlines are rushing to develop and perfect UAM vehicles.  A critical question for the FAA and other regulators is whether the first entrants in the market will be allowed to capture the most preferred (i.e., most profitable) markets, or if spatial equity will be mandated. 

Many societal benefits can be realized from advanced air mobility.  These include reduced aircraft emissions and carbon footprints from running on electricity rather than jet fuel, and potentially from the substitution for automobile VMT. AAM can also facilitate urban mobility and speed up medical transport, not to mention air cargo and public services.  Additionally, the potential of U.S.-based manufacturing may result in job generation and economic develop benefits.  

But it’s not a simple issue of cheerleading for the next wave of technology. A regulatory environment needs to be established, and issues of economics and equity remain to be worked out among all stakeholders.