On The Radar
Australia’s Deakin University this month published a white paper evaluating the opportunities and next steps for what it calls Advanced Aerial Mobility (AAM) and the use of eVTOL aircraft for passenger and freight services. The report argues that the emerging sector offers a significant opportunity for Australia to develop high-tech businesses while highlighting the challenges related to regulation, safety, noise, and community acceptance.
Uber has identified Melbourne as one of the launch cities for its planned Uber Air taxi network, which it has long said would commence in 2023. However, the ride-hailing group has yet to confirm when it intends to begin trial operations in the Australian city, though it previously indicated that these might start in 2020.
In June 2020, Natalie Malligan left her position as head of Uber Air in Australia, having been in the job for barely 10 months. The move prompted local observers to wonder whether Uber might be shifting priorities to focus on U.S. early-adopter cities such as Dallas and Los Angeles.
Around this time, government papers disclosed by the country’s The Age newspaper, following a freedom-of-information request, highlighted concern among Australian government officials about an apparent lack of progress with Uber plans. The papers gave the impression that cooperation between the company and government officials had not advanced much since a joint presentation with Uber in Washington, D.C., in June 2019 that included an announcement of infrastructure partnerships with local companies Macquarie, Telstra, and Scentre Group.
At that time, in response to questions from FutureFlight, an Uber spokesperson provided the following statement: "Uber remains committed to Melbourne as our first launch city outside of the United States. The Uber Air team will continue to work closely with our partners and assess the impact of this global health crisis to our timelines and adjust accordingly. We are currently focused on deploying innovative solutions to make meaningful progress amid the ongoing challenges presented by Covid-19.”
The documents released by Australia’s Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities, and Regional Development noted concerns raised by officials regarding the need for Uber to engage with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to agree the terms under which eVTOL aircraft could be approved for urban air mobility use. Officials also indicated possible concerns over noise, the sharing of controlled airspace around Melbourne Airport, and the need to agree on suitable infrastructure for ground operations.
The Deakin University report was published in association with the Institute for Intelligent Systems and the Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics. It spells out multiple advantages that AAM could bring to Australia while also addressing the challenges raised by officials and industry leaders. One of its core conclusions is that “AAM will happen, but not for everybody, and not door-to-door, in the short to medium term.”
Clem Newton-Brown, a former member of Australia’s Victoria state legislature who now runs a company called Skyportz focused on developing infrastructure to support the introduction of eVTOL operations, told FutureFlight he remains optimistic about the potential for urban air mobility in Australia while stressing the need for multiple stakeholders to be involved. "At Skyportz we have always proceeded on the basis that Uber Air is potentially just one user of our infrastructure,” he commented. “Uber has done a good job of bringing all the components together and raising interest in the potential for UAM, but at the end of the day Uber does not design aircraft, build aircraft, fly aircraft, or operate skyport facilities, and they never intended to do any of these things. They run an app, and their ‘partners’ were always going to be responsible for every aspect of operations.”