Thursday, July 25, 2024


By Bikram Vohra

“The world is rapidly urbanising, and ground infrastructure alone cannot meet the demands of tomorrow,” said Tom Enders, now the ex CEO of Airbus commenting on the UAM activities before stepping down in 2019. “The sky as a third dimension to the urban transport networks is going to revolutionise the way we live.”

CityAirbus is an all-electric, four-seat, multi-copter vehicle demonstrator that focuses on advancing remotely piloted electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) flight. The CityAirbus full-scale demonstrator conducted its first take-off in May 2019.

In the 2009 version of Batman and Robin, the famous Batmobile gets wings and can fly. The marvel is that just a couple of decades later, you and I could well be transporting ourselves in a similar urban style by whizzing across rooftops. Hoping to meet Mary Poppins or the Jetsons, maybe even someone from Star Wars at some stage, the Urban Air Mobility Sector has received an enormous boost with Airbus announcing its CityAirbus project as being on course and ready to take off.

Currently, there are several prototypes on the market with Joby Aviation, Kitty Hawk, Lilium, Terrafugia, Uber Air, and Volocopter listed as the main ones. Joby is a California based company whose flying cars initiatives, as the UAM efforts are informally called is working on an air taxi service through electric VTOL machines. Its ethic is predicated to: we want to spend less time travelling and more time living. It is now buying up Uber Air/Uber Elevate, so the tow will join forces in this category. Also, based in the sun-kissed state Kitty Hawk Aviation wants to produce single pax air vehicles and create highways in the sky. It is chary about divulging how far its enterprise has been successful. Lilium Jet is a German venture working on a prototype, five-seat electric vertical take-off and landing, electrically powered airplane. It is also considering a seven-seater ideal for the airport to city centre transportation.

This VTOL will function through dedicated vertiports, pretty much like bus depots in the sky. Terrafugia has twin ambitions. It is a Chinese-owned corporation working out of Massachusetts and is developing a roadable aircraft called the Transition and a flying car called the TF-X, which it believes will revolutionise mobility on the ground as we see it today. Volocopter, also German, is pretty much ahead of the game with its Volocopter 2X, a two-seat, optionally-piloted, multirotor electric helicopter. The personal air vehicle was designed and produced by Volocopter GmbH of Bruchsal and has been shown to the public.

There have been some real-time efforts to use the air option. For example, from Denmar, Skyways used UAVs to drop packages on the Singapore university campus and did so successfully. The CityAirbus project is not the first UAM this company has engaged in. I have built the Vahana single-passenger, self-piloted VTOL aircraft and the Voom on-demand shared helicopter booking service app. But this decision is a game-changer. It means the big boys are moving from experimentation to a new dimension in travel. What was once sci-fi could well be for real in our lifetimes, with air traffic being of the essence. Literally, you get into your vehicle on the lawn of the house, programme your route for the sake of safety and whizz off to work. Aviation and Space agencies are beginning to take this development seriously like it is no longer in the realm of fiction.

Even NASA has got into the act. It officially defines urban air mobility (UAM) as a “system for air passenger and cargo transportation within an urban area, inclusive of small package delivery and other urban unmanned aircraft systems services.” In other words, to quote, “NASA’s vision of this new era in air travel is to ensure safe and efficient air transportation as a small drones, electric aircraft, and automated air traffic management among other technologies to perform a wide variety of missions including cargo and logistics.”

The No Runway Required syndrome is well explained on MITRE’s safety-oriented advisory: “As an electric-powered mode of transportation, UAM takes advantage of uncluttered, low-altitude (500 to 5,000 feet above ground level) airspace to take one to five passengers or cargo to destinations of five to 50 miles. And it does it without adding to road congestion or pollution, or creating costly road-widening projects. VTOL does not require a runway. The flights need just enough space to go up, across, then down.The prospect of using an open slice of the sky to (literally) rise above ground traffic is appealing to various stakeholders. The steadily growing UAM community includes the FAA, NASA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, transportation researchers, municipal governments, and civil aviation authorities. The diverse group also includes aircraft manufacturers like Bell Helicopters, Airbus, and Boeing, ridesharing company Uber, and startups such as Kitty Hawk’s Cora, Joby, and Terrafugia. In São Paulo, Brazil, a precursor to UAM is in use, and an app-based platform finds and books the nearest helicopter. In New Zealand and Dubai, entrepreneurs are testing and refining prototypes.”

Let us see the situation as it is today. According to surveys, cars and roads can take up as much as 50% of real estate in urban enclaves. According to a Bloomberg study, “The average parking space requires about 300 square feet of asphalt. That’s the size of a studio apartment in New York, enough room to hold 10 bicycles. It’s not just the 300 square feet in your driveway or at the curb outside your apartment building that your car requires to be fully functional. If you drive a personal motor vehicle for basic everyday transportation, there’s also the 300 square feet at your job, and at the supermarket, and outside the restaurant where you have dinner. There’s the 300 square feet at your kid’s school, at the hardware store, at the coffee shop. Wherever you go, you’re going to need a parking space.”

The cities on the planet admittedly are being held at ransom. Add the time lost in finding a parking space is millions of manhours a day. Efforts to combat this invasion by no parking days, alternate day driving, sharing and pooling, taking public transportation have not taken off anywhere. USA Today says there is also a mental side to things; maddening searches may also lead to unforeseen personal and emotional problems. According to the report, nearly two-thirds of the U.S. drivers reported they felt stressed while finding a parking spot.

Additionally, nearly 42% of the U.S. respondents said they missed an appointment, 34% abandoned a trip because of parking issues and 23% experienced road rage.

Consequently, the UAM may be our only salvation. Even as Airbus entered the market, Joby Aviation has been given a $100 million car manufacturer Toyota to produce an electric air taxi. So the far-seeing know this transition will occur. CityAirbus is far more ambitious an exercise. The fully electric vehicle is equipped with fixed wings, a V-shaped tail, and eight electrically powered propellers as part of its uniquely designed distributed propulsion system. It is designed to carry up to four passengers in a zero-emissions flight in multiple applications.

“We are on a quest to co-create an entirely new market that sustainably integrates urban air mobility into the cities while addressing environmental and social concerns. Airbus is convinced that the real challenges are as much about urban integration, public acceptance, and automated air traffic management, as about vehicle technology and business models. We build on all of the capabilities to deliver a safe, sustainable, and fully integrated service to society,” said Bruno Even, Airbus Helicopters CEO.

CityAirbus is being developed to fly with an 80 km range and reach a cruise speed of 120 km/h, making it ideal for operations in major cities for various missions. The noise emission level is an issue. Sound levels are a crucial factor for an urban mission; Airbus’ says its extensive expertise in noise-friendly designs is driving CityAirbus’ sound levels below 65 dB(A) during fly-over and below 70 dB(A) during landing. As a result, CityAirbus NextGen will offer best-in-class economic performance in operations and support. The prototype’s first flight is planned for 2023. That is how fast things are going.

“We have learned a lot from the test campaigns with our two demonstrators, CityAirbus and Vahana”, said Even. “The CityAirbus NextGen combines the best from both worlds with the new architecture striking the right balance between hover and forward flight. The prototype is paving the way for certification expected around 2025.” Beyond the vehicle, Airbus is working with partners, cities, and city inhabitants to create the ecosystem essential to enabling this new operating environment to emerge in genuine service to society.

Of course, it is not that simple, with the need for adequate ground control being vital to the success of the UAM era. Otherwise, the risk of debris from the sky, collisions, electrical failure is all possible. As such, inbuilt safety measures will need to be put in place. There is also the cost of these hovercraft if they are to replace cars. There is also the question of training civilian owners in handling the vehicles before giving them licenses. Then again, air traffic control, emergency support systems, airways patrolling, and security will all have to be factored in. The FAA certification protocols will have to be worked out. The FAA has not seen many hybrid flying machines, and there are no precedents to fall back on. You cannot have current overworked and highly pressured Air Traffic Control for conventional aircraft be stretched to handle this new volume or keep it away from airports and vectoring aircraft and approach and take off fly paths. These days even a small drone is a threat if it is in the way.

Another element is maintenance and the need to ensure these vehicles are airworthy, which means a whole new set-up on the ground to keep them in working order. Writing in Linkedin, Rainer Beker, an expert in mobility services, talks about the other need; to wrap our heads around the concept: New technologies and business models are usually difficult to grasp for customers. We tend to imagine them based on today’s world. The point is that they will be used in a further progressed word, technologically and customer behaviour-wise. It doesn’t make sense to imagine them right in today’s world. That makes it hard to guess how they will fit into our lives. Even if described very well in advance or demonstrated with animations, people only realise what it feels like to have them once they are available. This is also the point of time when they will discover how to use them and how to build them into their lives.

Sometimes we bring it upon ourselves. The motor car, once a boon, is now holding us at gunpoint. A coming together of UAMs and UAVs so they read off the same page and the call on governments to financially support the creation of adequate infrastructure will now be given some urgency if the world makes this significant shift.


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