Urban Air Mobility: How the Future of Urban Spaces will Adapt to the 21st Century

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Urban Air Mobility

Urban Air Mobility will upend the status quo around cities, and for the better. There is a massive opportunity to leverage exciting new aircraft and other emerging aviation technologies to revolutionize the way people travel and move goods and products within and between urban areas. However, as Connected Aviation Today found out, there is still a lot to be done before drones begin taking flight in and around the world’s cities.

New solutions, such as electric Vertical Take-off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft, have the potential to fundamentally change the way cities and other urban areas function. They can revolutionize how government organizations and private enterprises provide critical services for individuals and businesses. And they have the potential to streamline and improve difficult, manual processes. 

However, many technological, legislative, and regulatory prerequisites need to happen for Urban Air Mobility (UAM) to gain mainstream adoption in major metro areas. 

Recently Connected Aviation Today had the opportunity to learn more about this nascent industry from two individuals deeply involved in making it a reality. Boe Svatek, Leader of Strategic Programs for UAS, and Andrew Donnelly, Senior Marketing Manager, both from Collins Aerospace, sat down with us to discuss some of their insights on the future of UAM, and what we can expect to see in the coming years.

Connected Aviation Today (CAT): We’ve been hearing a lot about Urban Air Mobility, but where are we in terms of it becoming real? What are the challenges and opportunities at present?

Andrew Donnelly: Urban air mobility represents a major opportunity for both private and public organizations across virtually any industry. Put simply, UAM refers to solutions that will open urban airspace to aviation solutions. As a new way to trade and energize commerce, UAM presents an exciting alternative to help businesses, organizations, and consumers trade, access goods, and render services between areas that are geographically harder to reach. 

“We have many examples of how UAM can be useful and how to integrate UAS solutions into existing infrastructure… I believe we will see forward progress on getting certain, less intrusive, solutions for infrastructure certified around 2024” – Boe Svatek

UAM has the potential to increase transportation efficiencies safely and sustainably and, potentially, reduce human risk factors for dangerous jobs. I know that trading and commerce are easy to understand when thinking about UAM, but there are other examples of jobs that could be done with uncrewed aircraft systems, or UAS. 

One that comes to mind is long linear inspections of critical infrastructures, such as railroad tracks and ties. A drone may be helpful for this type of inspection because it can be completed from an altitude that doesn’t require reducing the rail line’s operational capacity, i.e., does not disrupt operations. The same could be true for inspections of gas, electric, and communications lines to name a few. 

Boe Svatek: As Andy said, we are in a dynamic place in the industry. We have many examples of how UAM can be useful and how to integrate UAS solutions into existing infrastructure. I’ll add that, regarding the state of technology right now – we are in an advanced phase of research and development. At this point, UAM programs have advanced enough that we’re seeing test flights and involvement with global air navigation service providers, including the FAA. 

“Before the economic benefit can happen, UAS Traffic Management (UTM) services need to succeed in increasing the range in which uncrewed aircraft can operate.” – Andrew Donnelly

I believe we will see forward progress on getting certain, less intrusive, solutions for infrastructure certified around 2024, but that’s assuming things continue to go well. I should add that certification and the deployment of these technologies and the platforms they will serve are two very different things. Just because we get certifications, it may still be a while before we see UAM solutions in use at scale

CAT: Can you explain in a bit more detail how UAM solutions can benefit economies? Specifically, how do you see trade and commerce being impacted by UAM solutions?

Andrew Donnelly: Well, first I want to emphasize that before the economic benefit can happen, UAS Traffic Management (UTM) services need to succeed in increasing the range in which uncrewed aircraft can operate. Current regulations restrict commercial UAS operations to a distance no further than the pilot can see. Changing this will require coordination across the aviation industry, transportation authorities, and academia. We need to work collaboratively to safely and reliably extend this range. 

“Achieving this will greatly increase the reach and capability of what operators can do with a fleet of uncrewed and autonomous aircraft.” – Andrew Donnelly

The goal is to extend operations to a distance that is well Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight (BVLOS). Achieving this will greatly increase the reach and capability of what operators can do with a fleet of uncrewed and autonomous aircraft. Deploying infrastructure to support BVLOS flights for UAS operators is currently the greatest challenge that must be accomplished to make the benefits of UAM a reality. And it’s a very big and complicated challenge. 

Boe Svatek: Another opportunity I’d like to emphasize is the innovation that UAM can bring to vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) platforms. Right now, the standard VTOL platform in an urban setting is the helicopter. I think that, as we develop UAM solutions and platforms, we will have the opportunity to expand the variety of VTOL solutions available to UAS operators. 

“I believe we will have to focus on next in the short to mid-term is taking that technology and building support for it.” – Boe Svatek

When these new solutions are commercially available, they have the potential to enhance the reliability and safety of flight, and at the same time, reduce the cost of operations and emissions. Ultimately, the aviation community will be able to do all of that because these platforms are rapidly transitioning from concept to reality.

That said, integrating solutions into current airspace and air traffic management systems around the world is difficult. We have many talented teams working on the technology from across government and industry, but what I believe we will have to focus on next in the short to mid-term is taking that technology and building support for it. 

CAT: What are the new technologies that are helping to redefine how the industry is approaching UAM? How are they helping to make UAM a reality?

Boe Svatek: For an unmanned autonomous aircraft to gain access to airspace systems today, we need to bring in a lot of new technology. The fact is that much of this technology and capability is still in development but showing great promise. 

“The technology foundation is already here, and we are now proving that it can be adapted, integrated, and deployed as a critical part of an already growing industry.” – Boe Svatek

One of our major areas of focus is surveillance, specifically radar, and even lidar. The ability to more accurately track aircraft latitude, longitude, altitude, and time is becoming increasingly important. We need this so that we can understand exactly when and where an aircraft is in a four-dimensional space since urban areas have more obstacles and en-route conflicts that need to be avoided (for example buildings, wires, drones, etc.). There are not many radar solutions that can do that, and when dealing with airspace that is closer to the surface, these capabilities are key.

The U.S. can play a significant role in this process by being among the first to field a solution that can be easily and widely adopted. This capability gap in surveillance and tracking is fairly universal right now. Building solutions for that requires forward-thinking innovation so that we can position our tech at the very center of this new market. 

“We have an exceptional opportunity to build a revolutionary new aviation segment with UAM… we have the chance to completely upend and improve urban living, economies, really every aspect.” – Boe Svatek

You asked what technology is helping us build up UAM? I’d argue that the technology foundation is already here, and we are now proving that it can be adapted, integrated, and deployed as a critical part of an already growing industry. Our government partners are continuing to see example after example of safe, reliable UAS solutions bringing benefits to individuals and businesses. 

Andrew Donnelly: We are working in collaboration with industry partners to propose solutions and use cases for the technology. We have conversations with surveillance partners, communications partners, and hardware partners, all to establish a path forward through collaboration, and in many cases, integration.

Global air navigation service providers and transportation authorities are actively engaged and want to see ideas tested, trials completed, studies written, and collaboration proven across academia, government, and industry. They want to see a safe, efficient, and reliable infrastructure that is repeatable. 

Boe Svatek: Exactly, we are – in a way – navigating without knowing what the destination is, or, more precisely, what the destination looks like in terms of solutions. We must, as an aviation community, ensure that we are creating infrastructure that can be adapted and useful for whatever comes along.

We have an exceptional opportunity to build a revolutionary new aviation segment with UAM. While this market is still in its infancy, we have the chance to completely upend and improve urban living, economies, really every aspect. We can create a new and dynamic market that, quite frankly, would have the ability to change the world.

To learn more about how companies like Collins Aerospace are working to develop Urban Air Mobility, click here.

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