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Urban Air Mobility


Transforming the Aviation Industry to Make Flying Cars a Reality

With an exponential rise in the global population and rising urbanization, traffic congestion is set to be a massive issue in the near future. The rising trend of walking and biking along with public transit services are steering cities away from a future of extensive traffic congestion. However, the practical solution to avoiding congestion is up in the air. Companies are now less concerned with city street navigation and more concerned with flying above the cities. Urban Air Mobility can be considered as the future of transportation, with low emissions and the potential for reducing noise related to aircraft augmenting its growth.

According to statistical data, the development of electric aircraft has jumped by 50% since 2018. While most companies are working on developing commercial airlines, Urban Air Mobility is garnering more attention with the emerging trend of drone taxis, helicopter taxis, and passenger drones. While the idea may seem far-fetched, certain pioneers in the urban air mobility industry aim to normalize air taxi service over the coming five years. The industry is expected to start slow, but there is still lingering excitement about where the urban air mobility industry is headed. According to a report by Reports and Data, the Urban Air Mobility Market is expected to reach a valuation of USD 15.54 billion by 2030.

Urban air mobility, or UAM, is industry jargon for on-demand, unmanned and high automated passenger or cargo-carrying air transport service. As an electric-powered mode of transportation, urban air mobility leverages the low altitude airspace to carry nearly five passengers or some cargo to a destination within the range of five to fifty miles. It all does this without adding to the congestion or pollution. The automated vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) within and around the metropolitan areas is no longer an only-seen-in-sci-fi-movies approach. The urban mobility aircraft having VTOL capabilities can easily take off and land vertically in highly congested areas without needing a runway, thereby cutting costs associated with widening the roads. The aircraft’s design is mainly electric, coupled with multiple rotors to minimize the noise and provide high system redundancy. All it needs is just enough space to go up, across, and then down. 

The prospect of using open airspace to cover ground and avoid traffic is steadily attracting investors. The rapidly expanding urban air mobility community includes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), NASA, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the U.S. Department of Transportation, civil aviation authorities, researchers, and government authorities. It comprises significant aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus, Boeing, Uber, Bell Helicopters, and aviation start-ups like Kitty Hawk, Terrafugia, and Joby. 

Recent Developments

Airbus, the European aerospace company, has two Urban Air Mobility vehicles underway intended to offer short-distance trip flights across the big and congested cities and city centers from suburbs. The price of the air taxi is set to compete with the traditional on-road taxi service. Airbus’ first UAM vehicle is an autonomous eVTOL Vahana Demonstrator, a self-piloted air taxi capable of carrying one passenger with a range of nearly 31 miles or a 21-minute flight. The second UAM vehicle is called the CityAirbus, which cruises at 75 miles per hour and has a 15-minute flight time. 

Hyundai and Uber joined forces to develop drone taxis and take urban air mobility one step closer to reality. The aerospace network, Uber Elevate, was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2020. Under the partnership, Hyundai is set to produce and deploy air vehicles in Uber’s air network. In turn, Uber will offer aerospace support solutions, communication with ground transport, and customer connection through the aerial rideshare network.

Germany-based Volocopter promoted its VoloCity craft as the foremost commercially licensed electric-powered air taxi and will eventually run without human intervention. Initially, the aircraft will have room for only one passenger before it goes fully autonomous. The first commercial flights are set to commence in 2022. Similarly, several other companies are foraying into the field through partnerships with existing car manufacturers. For instance, SkyDrive, a Japanese start-up, joined forces with Toyota to test its air taxi, which is dubbed as the smallest electric vehicle in the world capable of vertical take-off and landing. Other companies, like Lillium, Bell, Wisk, and Joby Aviation, among others, are leveraging innovations like electric propulsion that mitigate noise emissions and reduce battery power to enhance the travel range. 

The Future of Urban Air Mobility 

The concept is already underway in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where urban air mobility is offered by helicopters. The frequency is more than New York City and Tokyo combined. In Sao Paulo, an app-based platform is available which searches for and books the nearest available vehicle. Even Mexico City offers helicopter air taxis. In countries such as New Zealand or Dubai, the testing for efficient urban air mobility aircraft and prototype development is underway. 

Even the COVID-19 pandemic ‒ that rattled the world and shook every industry vertical ‒ did not hinder the emergence of urban air mobility. The industry saw a total of over USD 900 million investment in aviation start-ups in the first half of 2020. What boosts the industry is the growing acceptance of the technology by the public and the efforts the regulatory authorities such as FAA and NASA are taking to figure out safety standards and other issues to overcome the safety and legal hurdles.  

However, for UAM to become a reality in the near future, changes in air traffic management are absolutely necessary. It is a prerequisite that the customers must feel safe about the air taxis, not only while traveling but also with them flying overhead at low altitudes. The industry holds the power to convince the world how the adoption of UAM will positively shape the way we travel in the future. 

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