This week, a partnership led by GKN Aerospace in collaboration with Swanson Aviation Consultancy, Pascall and Watson, and Connected Places Catapult completed the Skybus research project, which has been funded under Phase 2 of the Future Flight Challenge. The work, which began in January 2021, identified opportunities for a potential 30-passenger eVTOL aircraft to operate shuttle flights alongside smaller eVTOL air taxis.
The Skybus partners also developed a concept for a substantial vertiport facility that could be established on the banks of the Thames River in the heart of the UK capital. They published a mockup for this concept that showed the vertiport on the south bank of the river between London Bridge and Tower Bridge.
The exercise is among the first of 34 Phase 2 projects now drawing to a close as UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) prepares to name the companies and organizations selected to receive funding for Phase 3 projects. Those projects are expected to address two sets of objectives defined last year: “demonstrating aspects of novel air vehicles and systems” and advancing “cross-cutting technologies that enable the deployment and operation of new air vehicles.” The joint government-industry initiative is intended to stimulate progress toward early adoption of advanced air mobility (AAM) technology and services in the UK by 2030, reflecting goals spelled out in the "Future Flight Vision & Roadmap" document published in August 2021.
The core objectives for the £300 million ($405 million) program have been on advances in battery technology, autonomous flight capability, and infrastructure needs, including air traffic management. In tandem with the research projects, UKRI is jointly establishing public-private working groups with the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the Department for Transport (DfT), and technology accelerator groups like the Connected Places Catapult.
According to Future Flight Challenge director Gary Cutts, the first of these groups is focused on how the anticipated higher volumes of new aircraft can safely operate in more complex airspace shared by crewed and autonomous types. Another new working group will focus on the safety case for AAM operations.
“This is intended to complement the [regulatory] work the CAA and DfT are doing,” Cutts told FutureFlight. “There are about 15 representatives [from industry and government] and the intent is that we try to align on a small number of operating models and how we bring these together to establish some standards for the required airspace concepts.”
Cutts indicated that the Future Flight Challenge will likely also address what he sees as a critical need to ensure a positive social impact from the new mode of air transport "with widescale benefits that are socially inclusive." He added that "‘big technology’ like this can make some people nervous, perhaps because it’s seen as just something to benefit a privileged minority. It could involve providing better, greener connections to remote communities such as the Orkney Islands [in Scotland].”
The UK government has a strong net-zero environmental agenda, but recent shifts in the balance of power within the ruling Conservative party point to a possible backlash in which these investments are characterized as unjustifiable in the face of rising living costs and a Covid-ravaged public balance sheet. That said, some of the anticipated AAM use cases seem to address another thread in the narrative of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s agenda that speaks of "leveling up" to close economic opportunity gaps between rich and poor regions of the country.
“If you look at the dimensions of what we’re trying to do, it is broad and bold and, yes, it has a clear green agenda,” Cutts stated. “The network of companies we fund is about real innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence, autonomy, and robotics, and we’ve always had a strong bias towards start-ups. All of these things remain key government priorities, so we’re not feeling too vulnerable.”
The potential to better connect remote areas was well exemplified by flight trials conducted last year by hybrid-electric aircraft developer Ampaire with support from the Future Flight Challenge. It flew its Electric EEL technology demonstrator in the Orkney islands and then right across to the other end of Britain to the rural southwest counties of Devon and Cornwall to assess operational needs for public service flights.
Cutts anticipates that other early AAM use cases could include shuttle flights connecting existing airports with city-center vertiports. Freight operations are also on the not-so-distant horizon, in his view.
Potentially, Phase 2 Future Flight Challenge projects like Skybus could end up being taken further in later stages of the investment plan. Or, they could be advanced through purely private sector initiatives.
GKN declined to be specific about immediate next steps with the concept it has so far advanced with its partners. “As a Tier 1 supplier, GKN plans to continue exploring the concept to understand how we might contribute to different forms of future air mobility and help to meet specific urban air mobility challenges, such as noise, both within and outside the Future Flight Challenge,” a company spokeswoman said.