The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

UK's Future Flight Challenges Prepares Path to Flight Demonstrations

The team behind the UK-government-backed Future Flight Challenge is making preparations for a competition in 2021 that will determine which three categories of new aircraft are chosen to participate in a planned flight demonstration program to be held in 2023. The trial will be a key part of the third phase of a project intended to boost UK innovation in the advanced air mobility sector.

In November, UK Research and Innovation, which coordinates the Future Flight Challenge for the UK government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, announced the first 20 projects that will share over £7 million in funding under phase two of the program. The projects supported from this part of an overall £33.5 million tranche of grants include plans to use unmanned aircraft to deliver medical supplies, as well as work to resolve infrastructure and air traffic management challenges.

Meanwhile, a working group led by consultants Helios, industry representatives, and academics are in the final stages of preparing a report on a safety case for operating eVTOL and other new types of aircraft, especially in urban environments. This report is expected to be made public in the first quarter of 2021. The project is backed by £125 million ($163 million) in government funding and a further £175 million provided by the private sector.

According to Richard Derrett-Smith, a principal consultant with Helios, the flight trials will likely include a drone, a passenger-carrying eVTOL aircraft, and a larger regional aircraft with either electric, hybrid, or hydrogen propulsion systems. Beyond evaluating new aircraft types, the Future Flight Challenge is also intended to support the development of ground infrastructure, new operating models, and how they will be controlled and regulated.  

In addition to UK Research and Innovation, Future Flight working group members also include representatives from Cranfield University, the University of York, Queens University Belfast, as well as from eVTOL developer Vertical Aerospace, Airbus, air traffic management provider NATS, London Gatwick Airport, Airbus and low-cost carrier EasyJet.

Derrett-Smith told a recent webinar that the Future Flight team are building their plans around three phases of advanced air mobility implementation: short-term (2025); medium-term (2030) and long-term (2050). He that the short-term phase will see, “limited integration of new technology and new entrants [including urban air mobility] operating within the current aviation system, using existing airspace and regulatory structures.

The medium-term phase would involve, “more significant use of new technology and new vehicles with the significantly increased use of autonomous functions, with unmanned aircraft traffic management and unmanned aircraft service providers an established feature of air traffic management.” By the middle of this century, the Future Flight team expects to see advanced air mobility becoming essentially a seamless part of mainstream aviation with fully integrated operations and a unified traffic management system.

The Future Flight Challenge is due to conclude in 2024.