Urban Air Mobility Holds Promise of Future Efficiency

 - July 20, 2020, 4:31 PM
Joby Aviation is one of eight partners developing eVTOL aircraft for Uber's planned air taxi operations that could start in 2023. [Photo: Joby]

Everyone is talking about urban air mobility (UAM) vehicles and how they are going to bring aviation to the masses, but what is it really going to take to make this new style of transportation happen for a large segment of the population? To address those questions, FIA Connect pulled together a panel of experts on Monday in a session titled “Elevated Mobility: getting from demo to do!”

Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate, emphasized his company’s commitment to UAM, starting on this challenge three years ago. Technology is moving so quickly, it may not be long until “everyday flight” becomes feasible “through the power of the platform that Uber brings through its huge network of demand,” he said.

Real estate developer Ross Perot Jr.’s experience creating the infrastructure that underlies the massive 27,000-acre Alliance, Texas development will help Alliance partner to help Uber build its infrastructure, he explained. And Perot’s company is also working with Deloitte University on the Deloitte Innovation Zone, he said, “on how to bring these companies together to work on the next generation of transportation.”

Michael Romanowski, director of the FAA’s Policy and Innovation Division, represented the U.S. agency on the panel. “I am the regulator,” he said. “It is my job to look out for the safety of the system” and the vehicles that will operate in the UAM environment. The FAA is now working with 30 companies in its Innovation Center to help them on the path toward certification of their UAM vehicles. But certification is only one step. Helping the public understand the safety of such vehicles will be another important factor, he explained.

The U.S. Air Force is also pursuing UAM technologies and is eager to help develop such platforms. “There is so much more innovation happening outside the government,” said Will Roper, U.S. Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics. “We have to get outside our walls and where innovation is happening. UAM is on the cusp of flying us around as the Jetsons promised in 1962. When we look at UAM and what a big impact that could be for the economy, the Air Force cannot stand by idly and hope the market evolves. We think we can be some of the first adopters of this technology.”

The panelists addressed questions that are likely on a lot of peoples’ minds as more money is poured into UAM developments. How to make UAM operation routine is a big question and formed the backdrop for much of the session.

Uber’s Allison said efforts need to center on regulation, capital, and timing, and if any of those factors does not happen in proper sequence, the market will not develop properly. “So when the vehicles are ready, the infrastructure is coming on line, and the regulations are in place, then they can operate in a commercially relevant way.”

Romanowski pointed out that when he speaks with local community groups, their big concern is whether UAMs will be flying over their houses. It is important to communicate, he explained, and “make sure the community understands. We can make the vehicles quiet, but where will they fly?" The most likely routes will be over freeways, mimicking how helicopters operate, but eventually as people realize how quietly UAM vehicles operate, random programming could be used to create routes that only occasionally fly over a particular home.

The Air Force’s Roper is working with government agencies like the FAA and NASA and commercial entities like Uber Elevate on UAM development. For too long, the Air Force has relied on military-unique assets, but now it wants the same systems that companies design for commercial markets. “We’re changing from being a procurer to being a partner,” he said. “We’re an ecosystem of like-minded users. It’s part and parcel of our American history. We were almost born as an aerospace nation. It’s fun to have this opportunity right at our doorstep.”