“People wonder why this time is different than all the others when they were promised flying cars,” says Ken Goodrich, NASA’s advanced air mobility deputy project manager for technology. “The real difference is advancements in automation and autonomy technology to simplify operation of the vehicles combined with electric propulsion, which helps dramatically reduce operation and maintenance costs, along with increasing community compatibility.”
eVOTL aircraft offer opportunities to improve urban congestion, enhance mobility, decrease transport time for people and goods, reduce pollution and decrease the strain on existing public transportation networks. These aims are all critical as the worldwide population continues to grow and migrate to urban and suburban areas.
“The United Nations (U.N.) says that millions of people per week are moving from rural areas to suburban and urban areas, and that’s a trend that’s going to continue for the next decade,” says Hartman. “Imagine a city the size of New York popping up on the globe once every month to month-and-a-half for the next 10 years.”
The 2018 U.N. report on the world’s cities cited by Hartman also indicates that by 2030 there will be 43 megacities – those with more than 10 million people – compared to 33 megacities around the world in 2018. The cost to develop and maintain the necessary ground infrastructure will be tremendous. “It’s an untenable position, and we’ll see more and more congestion,” says Hartman. “Utilizing the air space – the third dimension of mobility – gives you the opportunity to add rapid transport back into cities.”
Challenges to Implementation
While UAM presents undeniable opportunities, there are numerous challenges, most of which relate to three main areas: the vehicles, infrastructure and public acceptance.
“We need to get the vehicle technology to the point where it is available, manufacturable and reliable,” says Jim Sherman, director for strategic development for the Vertical Flight Society, a technical society for engineers, scientists and others working to advance vertical flight technology. Currently, he says, most vehicles are one-offs or prototypes, with a handful of companies conducting flight testing.
In the United States, the vehicles also must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Given the wide variance in designs, this could be arduous. “The FAA has started to address that through adoption of performance-based regulations as opposed to prescriptive-based ones,” says Sherman. “Utilizing performance-based regulations based on industry standards by organizations such as SAE International and ASTM International will enable broader operational requirements, rather than highly prescriptive regulations.”