HAI Convention News

Baby Steps Toward Urban Air Mobility

 - January 29, 2020, 10:54 PM
Attendees at the Heli-Expo 2020 Urban Air Mobility panel included (from left) James Viola, HAI CEO; Jay Merkel, FAA executive director, UAS Integration Office; Nikhil Goel, Uber head of aviation product; Travis Mason, Airbus v-p of certification and regulatory affairs; Carey Cannon, Bell chief engineer for technology and innovation; and Michael Dyment, founder and managing partner of NEXA Capital Partners.

The Urban Air Mobility (UAM) concept needs to reach beyond the goal of serving urban areas, with new electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft—whether manned or unmanned—ready to serve wherever they are needed, according to Jay Merkle, executive director of FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office. Speaking at Helicopter Association International’s (HAI) UAM Forum in Anaheim, Merkle said the development of regulation and unmanned traffic management (UTM) will have to happen through incremental steps as part of a wider effort to build a complete ecosystem for the new aircraft to operate in and to win public acceptance for UAM.

Accordingly, the FAA official told forum attendees that eVTOL operations will likely start with smaller aircraft flying short hops before more complex operations with larger aircraft are possible. On December 31, Merkle’s team issued a notice of proposed rulemaking for new requirements for remote identification of unmanned aircraft. This is widely viewed as an important step in establishing a regulatory framework that could support autonomous eVTOL operations and the industry has until March 2 to respond.

The UAM Forum was moderated by HAI’s new president and CEO Jim Viola, signaling the group’s intention to play a leading role in this fast-emerging sector of vertical flight.

Nikhil Goel, Uber’s head of aviation product, said that the rideshare giant will soon announce the final two manufacturing partners for its planned Uber Air taxi network. It is already partnered with the following prospective eVTOL aircraft makers: Boeing (through its Aurora Flight Sciences subsidiary), EmbraerX, Jaunt Air Mobility, Joby Aviation, Pipistrel, Bell, Karem Aircraft, and Hyundai.

Goel said Uber’s eVTOL vision is to reduce two-hour commutes to 20 minutes with 200-mph aircraft carrying four to six passengers over a distance of 60 miles. It is now working on a multi-mode approach to using existing and soon to be built vertiports. Uber Elevate said the price would be a third of a current helicopter ride and would go down to 50 cents per passenger mile in a few years.

Travis Mason, Airbus’s v-p for certification and regulatory affairs, told the meeting that the European aerospace group is taking a more gradual approach than many of the eVTOL startups with its plans for the UAM sector. The company’s A-cubed division has completed flight testing of its Vahana eVTOL technology demonstrator, and this year Airbus Helicopters will finish evaluation of the larger CityAirbus demonstrator. These trials will inform the group’s next steps in developing a production eVTOL design and, at the same time, it is working on how to resolve the sector’s unmanned traffic management needs.

Carey Cannon, Bell chief engineer for technology and innovation, explained why the company has changed course with its Nexus eVTOL. Earlier this month, it presented a new all-electric 4EX design, which has replaced the early hybrid-electric model with two fewer ducted fans.

Bell’s revised plans are intended to better fit the needs of Uber’s planned air-taxi network. Carey said the UAM industry needs to be ready to produce eVTOL aircraft in much higher volumes than is normal in the aerospace sector, but that first it needs to be ready to complete type certification of new models.

Michael Dyment, founder and managing partner of Nexa Capital Partners, summarized his latest white paper in which the consultant predicts that at least $200 billion will be spent on the UAM sector over the next 20 years. He argued that Uber’s ambitious timetable of beginning commercial service by 2023 could happen without many regulatory changes. However, Dyment acknowledged the significant challenge of achieving as many as 23,000 domestic flights a day into densely populated areas.