Flight taxi over traffic jam

Revolutionizing the 3rd Dimension – Urban Air Mobility

Reiner Hertl
7 minutes

Urban air mobility (UAM) is dramatically increasing in significance. Although currently still grounded for development and evaluation, the first air taxis are set to begin test operations in major cities – including Los Angeles, Dallas, Dubai and Singapore – from 2020 onwards. Manned and unmanned air taxis, VTOLs (vertical takeoff and landing aircraft), eVTOLs, quadcopters, velocopters, multicopters and drones will soon be transporting goods and passengers around urban areas. A wide range of urban air mobility initiatives and operating concepts are developing more and more mobility products and futuristic transportation methods. Ground transportation has been butting up against its limits for a long time. In the metropolises, traffic jams are a constant issue, as well as a capital cost and environmental factor. Not only do the EU’s traffic jams cost multiple billions annually, they are also tremendously detrimental to personal mobility.

The next decade – “a new golden age of aviation”

Rodin Lyasoff, Chief Executive Officer of A³, an Airbus-owned innovation centre in Silicon Valley, believes that these new innovations and self-flying air taxis are heralding the dawn of a new era. A major breakthrough was achieved with the creation of Airbus’s Vahana eVTOL, a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle capable of travelling around 20 miles in approximately 15 minutes. As Lyasoff stated at the biennial TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference held in April 2018 in Vancouver, the cost of a trip of this length would be around 40 USD:

Airbus’s Vahana air taxi, which is powered by eight electric propellers, flies autonomously and takes off and lands vertically. The prototype was showcased publicly for the first time at the Paris Air Show in June 2017. The specifically established arm of the European aviation corporation also includes Voom, a helicopter service already active in São Paulo and Mexico City, and the Cityairbus, an electrically driven multicopter developed jointly with Siemens and a significant component of Airbus’s overall UAM concept.

From hailing cabs to ordering air taxis

What sounds like pie in the sky and has earned its visionaries veritable criticism – and, on occasion, even mockery – could soon force sceptics to eat their words. According to insider estimates, commercial operations could be launched as soon as 2023, when Uber, a strong driving force behind UAM, plans to launch its air taxi business at Paris’s Flying-Car Lab.

Although the multicopters themselves are ready for takeoff, new urban infrastructures and traffic management still need to be defined. Where, exactly, will the air taxis take off and land, and how and where will they refuel en route? What types of “vertiports” (airports for VTOLs), landing pads or hubs can be quickly and efficiently constructed? How easily will interested parties be able to access the air taxi service? And how? Via apps? Will there soon be smart cities with a garage on every roof?

Accessible roofs of skyscrapers are one possibility, as are the top decks of multi-storey car parks, each equipped with robotic technology and passenger waiting areas. These are, at least, much less effort to build than an underground rail network or any other major traffic infrastructure system.

The fundamental advantage of VTOL aircraft is that they require no runways to take off and land. Almost a year ago, for example, Airbus Helicopters in Singapore succeeded in landing their Skyways package drone on the roof of a specially designed station, where it was loaded automatically by a robot arm and sent on its return journey. In another pilot project in Berne, Switzerland, drones operated by the Swiss postal service delivered lab samples from the University Hospital of Zurich to the University of Zurich’s Irchel Campus twice as fast as by land.

Transport, services, security and observation – the broad spectrum of opportunities offered by urban air mobility

Organisational, strategic and technical development is focused on a whole spectrum of demands and application areas: the safe transportation of passengers and goods, rescue services, public safety and traffic monitoring. In addition to the time and cost factors, project work is also focusing on reducing the environmental consequences of traffic and increasing transportation personalisation. Lyasoff put it into perspective in his TED Talk when he stated that “Flight is about to get a lot more personal”.

Unlike scheduled ground transportation, on-demand air taxis can be tailored more precisely to customer requirements. Regularly scheduled air taxi services, however, certainly remain a possibility, depending on how this new sector continues to develop and where it’s headed.

Low-emission, low-noise electric engines as a key factor in cities

Electric engines are not only cleaner and lighter than combustion engines, but their rotors’ low speeds generate little traffic noise, making them quieter in the long term. Reduced traffic noise is definitely one reason for cities to switch to urban air mobility. It is also one of the many decisive factors determining the acceptance of urban air mobility.

Another is urban pollution. Knowledge gained from the clean e-mobile car industry is also being used to develop urban air mobility. And aviation is giving rise to “more and more ‘on demand’ mobility products, which people can use as needed. Air taxis or autonomous drones are just two examples,” explains Professor Günter Kappler, the aviation speaker on the scientific advisory council of Munich Aerospace. This organisation serves as an umbrella for the Technical University of Munich (TUM), the Bundeswehr University Munich (UniBw), the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and its associated Oberpfaffenhofen Institutes, as well as Bauhaus Luftfahrt (BHL).

Electric motors are increasing in performance power, and hybrid solutions, too, are being used in urban air mobility. One example is Bell’s Nexus air taxi concept, in which a tail-mounted turbine will be used to power the six electric engines. In one of our most recent articles, we described Rolls-Royce’s ACCEL electric aircraft, which could soon set the world speed record for an electric vehicle.

Alliances and competitors, initiatives and pilot projects – an overview

More than a hundred different electric VTOL vehicles are currently being developed. These range from the Bruchsal-based startup’s eponymous Volocopter to projects by car manufacturers such as Daimler and technology companies like Bosch, right up to innovations from leading global corporations like Boeing, which has taken over Aurora Flight Sciences. Airbus’s focused UAM unit, which was founded in June 2018, is working with Italdesign and Audi to develop the crossover prototype Pop.Up Next, a “roadworthy airtaxi”. This is a two-seater, aerodynamic passenger cabin which can be coupled either with a car module for road use or with a flight module for air travel. Other public transport methods (like trains) can also transport the Pop.Up Next capsule. Kitty Hawk is planning to launch the world’s first air taxi service in New Zealand with its Flyer concept.

Establishing the new industry and helping it make its breakthrough requires an intensive exchange of information at regional, national and international level. In 2017, for example, Airbus was named the leader of the European Commission’s UAM Initiative, part of the larger European Innovation Partnership for Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC). This was launched in July 2012 with the aim of promoting partnerships between industries and European cities.

Safety, acceptance and citizen participation

It is predicted that considerably more than half the world’s population will be living in urban regions and major cities by 2030. Given this statistic, the collapse of ground transportation seems inevitable – or people will just have to fly over the traffic jams. In order for individuals to be able to take to the air relatively easily for daily, personal travel and business mobility, the concept must be sustainable, competitive, safe and socially acceptable. The operators must also cooperate closely with politicians, with the cities themselves, and with the regulatory authorities. Doing so will make urban air mobility beneficial to society, as well as economically and environmentally sound.

Looking ahead: dynamic helicopters are making increasingly bigger waves

Which global players and startups will take the lead in urban air mobility? In which metropolises will the concept gradually become the norm, an established element, at the beginning of the new decade?

Will we see rotary-winged aircraft, flat-winged aircraft, or VTOLs – which combine the benefits of both and compensate for the disadvantages? WingMag’s forthcoming articles will keep you informed of the latest UAM innovations. We will also focus on the technology involved and on the smart cities around the globe which are partnering with companies to take the lead in urban air mobility.

by Reiner Hertl

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