While start-up companies enjoy an advantage in developing the disruptive technologies driving the urban air mobility (UAM) revolution, there is still a crucial role to play for the incumbent aerospace industry giants, according to panelists speaking during an FIA Connect session on Thursday.
With a forecast requirement for about 200,000 vehicles over the next 20 years, and with most of them being eVTOL aircraft, the incumbents certainly have an interest in the UAM marketplace. While their relative inertia to innovate internal processes might give start-ups the edge in terms of rapidly prototyping and maturing technological innovations, those companies typically do not have the internal expertise to oversee regulatory compliance for either the air vehicles or their manufacture. That's where companies such as Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer play a major role.
As a result, many have been making significant investments themselves in start-ups that are tackling some of the key technological issues, such as sense-and-avoid and traffic management systems, as well as the electric air vehicles themselves. Battery technology remains one of the limiting factors to the performance and financial viability of the UAM sector, and investments have come from Boeing and others in this area.
“You have to have that collaboration with that fast, disruptive thinking not bounded by pre-conceived notions that might exist in a 104-year old company,” said Brian Schettler, senior managing director with Boeing HorizonX. "But how do you bring and accelerate development when you get to the tough things of certification, regulation, and even manufacturing? It’s bringing the best of both worlds together.”
Gary Cutts, director of the UK government-backed Future Flight Challenge project, also noted that while start-ups drive the sector, they need to form consortia to present more rounded cases that encompassed the entire “ecosystem” surrounding UAM. That includes the involvement of regulators, operators, and local city governments, as well as an embrace of airspace, communications, and infrastructure requirements.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the development in the UAM sector, and many see that as positive insofar as it has ushered in a new era of an appetite for change and to accelerate its implementation. Moreover, regulatory flight waivers during the crisis have allowed development to be undertaken more freely with regard to flight-testing. Covid-19 has also given some companies a chance to demonstrate the benefits of electric aviation. China’s EHang, for instance, has been using its autonomous air vehicles to deliver medical supplies and personnel to hospitals during the crisis.
It has not been good news for everyone, though. “This is a world of haves and have-nots,” said Kristen Bartok Touw, co-CEO with Air Finance. “I haven’t seen people being able to raise the capital that we would like during Covid. I do have a fear that it will be a world in which the start-ups that were able to raise significant capital prior to Covid are still able to innovate and get their work done, and those are the companies that will benefit and accelerate.” Those not able to raise capital will struggle, she added.
This may or may not be a blessing in disguise for the sector as a whole. Most in the industry consider the figure of at least 292 electric platforms in development far too great, and it is those with more mature, more consortium-driven user cases that appear most likely to find traction.
Other speakers also raised concerns that Covid had introduced uncertainties, mainly at the societal level. The nature of the “workplace” and that of business travel in the future is far from certain, nor are the best uses for electric aviation. Local authorities might not consider short-range, intra-urban travel as attractive a proposition as using eVTOL machines to bring commuters into the city from outlying areas to relieve some of the burden on ground transportation.
While the focus now centers mainly on the vehicles themselves, the question of infrastructure is increasingly becoming the main topic as teams build their business cases. That not only presents obvious issues such as vertiports, communications, and air traffic management, but also encompasses acceptance by the public. The question of whether UAM is considered as mass transport available to all, or a high-premium service for the few, has yet to be answered, and has a bearing on social and political acceptance at a local level. It also seems unlikely that governments would commit large investments to UAM infrastructure, leaving a void for the private sector to fill
Nevertheless, following a number of studies underway on a city-by-city basis, the question of infrastructure is now beginning to be tackled at an active level, with investment imminent to lock up properties that are ideal for vertiports in the most promising cities. New York and Vancouver figure prominently in the list of potential lead cities that have long-established and publicly-accepted urban helicopter operations.