The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Foresight Conference Latest To Consider Explosion of Interest in UAM

Attendees at the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) session during Foresight Aerospace's conference in London on December 5 seemed to agree that issues such as regulation and insurance and air traffic management failings, could stall an industry bursting to bring manned electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft into operation. 

Host Darrell Swanson, director of Swanson Aviation Consultancy, opened the event with an overview of his work on vertiports, including a plan for one near London's Waterloo railway station, while highlighting research on the numerous airfields and other sites around the UK that could be utilized.

With the siren calling loudly from such innovative thinkers the UK's Civil Aviation Authority(CAA) has been aligning itself to assist, along with organizations such as the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI). Frederic Laugere, innovative services lead at the CAA, explained that the agency created its Innovation Hub in April 2019 to supplement work being done by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency on airworthiness requirements for eVTOL aircraft. The hub offers companies developing technology for the UAM sector Gateway, Sandbox and Regulatory laboratories to conduct work around safety, security and consumer protection issues"

In Foresight conference's "Developing Policy & Strategy" panel session David Debney, head of technology-whole aircraft at ATI, said that, "we would always encourage an incentivization mechanism—carrot rather than stick." He noted that the UK has three underlying priorities for UAM: sustainability, mobility, and competitiveness. He also called on the sector to stand up for itself, as "a lot of people see flying as the bad guy. We need to be doing more to change the perception." ATI, he said, is working with others on developing innovation hubs, "and we have to have all the policies and procedures to go around it."

Catherine Phillips, intelligent automation manager at London Heathrow Airport, said few realize that "fast fashion is more of a contributor to global emissions than aviation, but nobody is targeting Primark [a UK clothing retail chain]." She added that "the CEO of Heathrow has already said that the first electric [aircraft opertor] will get free landing fees for a year."

Daniel Mee, senior manager, energy systems architecture at the Energy Systems Catapult, warned that, "Infrastructure always lags behind the disruptor." He added, "One of the challenges in UAM is who pays [for the infrastructure]? It will probably be the wealthy that use it first so why should people struggling to pay their energy bills chip in?"

This question was left hanging somewhat when Laugere admitted that the CAA has no interest in easing the way on the infrastructure side. However, in terms of what it is doing to help the operational and other sides of the emerging sector, panelist Sameer Savani, head of engineering and innovation at UK aerospace industry trade association ADS said, "The CAA is being seen quite enviously by the likes of the FAA [U.S. Federal Aviation Administration] and EASA with its Innovation Hub, etc." He suggested that, "other regulatory agencies need to take their lead from the CAA." ADS also runs the Farnborough International Airshow, and Savani commented that next year's event in July 2020 will "make a big play into UAM—encouraging aerospace to interact with disruptors and innovators."

Mee stressed that "standardization and international cooperation is important" and should be industry-led, but he called for "better reflection from government on the true cost of things. [For example] they are already subsidizing some fuels, which mitigates against people going electric." Echoing the Primark comment, he claimed that, "the meat industry emits the same as all of transportation put together."

"The government needs to make some hard decisions on policy," said Debney, "and direct research and development funding to where it will have the most effect."

Other topics touched on in the later panel sessions included hydrogen fuel cells and the difficulty of "decarbonizing aviation" as the size of the aircraft got larger and ranges longer. The debate raged over just how many eVTOL and other electric aircraft projects are now in development. Estimates ranged from 200 to 300 or more.  

Who the winners and losers will be remains to be seen, but this conference showed that climate concerns are currently center stage for policy-makers. The event provided ample evidence that many in the mainstream aviation sector are responding to the challenge, as illustrated by presenters from Airbus' E-Fan X project and Scandinavia's new Heart Aerospace—both focused on creating hybrid-electric airliners.

However, the conference also revealed generally showed how little government direction there is to date in terms of the advantages eVTOL aircraft can deliver in terms of  overcoming traffic congestion and pollution, and how little has been done so far to agree standards and approaches in areas such as air traffic management. 

Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer also is committed to advancing UAM technology and electric aviation. David Rottblatt, urban traffic management leader of its EmbraerX new technology division, told delegates that the growth of UAM necessitates a need for unmanned air traffic management. With São Paulo in Brazil already being the busiest UAM area in the world already with helicopters, Embraer had used that as its testing ground for research. "There were so many flights that the Brazilian ANSP air traffic management agency [which is military-run] had to create limited access to the São Paulo 'grid,'" he explained. "This procedure-based limitation suppresses the ability for supply and demand to meet, so we realized UAM will never happen with hard procedures-based limitations around the world." This, he said, is why EmbraerX published its white paper on the issue last year, Flight Plan 2030.

Finally, a theme that has not been discussed much to date is insurance for UAM operations. Chris Varley, representing eVTOL designer Bartini on a panel session, said, "I have heard a lot of people talk about risk and safety, and insurance will be necessary for this sector." Varley's main business is in the insurance sector, and from this perspective he commented, "We don't understand what the risks are and we have to look at the real world." He also suggested people may have a choice of levels of insurance cover "when they use these may be the only way they can be economically viable."