The question of when UAM will become a reality is a tricky one, dependent largely on what’s considered a milestone. (For example, drone delivery of packages compared to full air taxi service.) Sherman of the Vertical Flight Society speculates that if flight demonstrations occur this year, then UAM could be operational by 2023. Shestopalov with AiRXOS believes flights over water – for instance, taking off at San Francisco International Airport and landing on a heliport near your destination in the San Francisco Bay – could happen within the next five years. But she says the real shift, “providing a flight somewhere that costs what an UberX costs now,” is at least 10 years out.
There are several steps composites companies can take to help propel the UAM movement forward, including these four:
Form partnerships with unexpected companies. Last year, Sikorsky collaborated with Otis Elevators, which invented the first safety elevator and moves billions of people daily. UAM has the ability to connect destinations the same way that an elevator first connected floors together, allowing for skyscrapers and today’s modern cities, says Hartman. “When was the last time you heard about an aerospace company talking to an elevator company?” he says. “Those are the types of non-traditional relationships we are going to need to make this work.”
Serve as advisors to OEMs. As the market matures, it will require 10,000 to 20,000 vehicles a year, says Sherman. “Bell, Boeing, Airbus and other OEMs can’t produce aircraft at that rate, so they will need some education and assistance from composites companies that can produce at automotive rates,” he says.
Focus on the big picture, not just the aircraft. Sikorsky is a founding member of the World Economic Forum’s UAM Working Group that brings together industry, policy makers, academia and public sector leaders to develop a global plan for UAM. “We need to start thinking about UAM from a holistic level down as we are also doing bottoms-up building of air vehicles,” says Hartman. “As an industry, we are committed to and excited about designing new things, but we have to take a moment and ask about all the requirements those new things are going to fall under.”
Continue pushing the performance of composites. “I would surmise that a lot of the applications we are talking about are really going to push the envelope on composite performance,” says Hartman. “We’re going to ask composites to do things they haven’t done before and operate in ways they haven’t before.” For instance, some companies are considering structural batteries that integrate composites with battery materials so the battery serves as both an energy storage device and a structural component.