‘Our goal is to democratize the air.’ How aerial transportation will shape cities of the future


(Credit: Unsplash)

Urban Aerial Mobility – the movement of goods and people through the skies – has long been a focus for city builders, policymakers, engineers and urban designers trying to understand how unlocking the elusive third dimension of transportation could positively impact people’s lives.

Might Urban Aerial Mobility be the key to reducing congestion, removing people and packages off roads?

Might it enable more people to access well-paid jobs, or will it induce urban sprawl?

How might the addition of vehicles in the 3D right-of-way affect noise, the environment, even our cityscapes and city views?

And could it be accessible to all, regardless of income or neighborhood?

These questions sit at the center of policymaking decisions as new technologies with the potential to disrupt the organization of urban life emerge – and as it becomes more difficult to address the growth of cities and congestion with traditional infrastructure investments.

Around the world, gridlock is draining economies and human potential. Congestion cost drivers in the United States more than $87 billion in 2018, according to the INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard, an average of $1,348 per driver. Emerging economies are the most affected, with Russia, Turkey, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil ranked the top five most-gridlocked nations. Increasingly, policymakers are grappling with the use of the third dimension as an important part of a multi-modal network to reverse gridlock even as more people and jobs locate in metropolitan areas.

The most congested cities in the world
Image: NRIX 2018 Global Traffic Scorecard

Urban flight is not new. VIPs have been using helicopters in cities for decades, leading to a stigma that low-altitude aviation is only accessible to the rich and famous – and with a high cost to our carbon footprint and emissions.

In the past two years, however, developments by the private sector have been challenging that assumption. We see new air operators, new models of service and a new focus on electric vertical take-off and landing (EVTOL) and autonomous flight, which could make 80% of helicopter accident causes obsolete. Safer transport and cleaner mobility are vital to the successful growth of cities. In recent models comparing distances, passenger load and energy consumption, an EVTOL aircraft outperformed even an electric car for distances further than 62 miles.

By supplementing existing transportation networks and providing accessible service by air, Urban Aerial Mobility could be a core component of future urban mobility. However, affordability requires scale. Uber Elevate set a goal to reduce the cost of aerial rideshare to $0.44 per passenger mile (compared to $0.464 per mile to drive your own car) but it’s unclear whether this can be achieved, given current understanding of both the challenges and opportunities of operating more vehicles in the sky.

Making urban flight a reality

The future of aerial mobility will of course rely on advances in technology that are just beginning to take shape today.

Vehicles must meet a certifiable safety threshold from regulators. Given Moore’s Law and the steep slope of technology adoption curves, so many in the aviation community believe it’s time for policymakers and companies to collaborate and ensure tech developments and deployments and government processes mature along the same timeline.

For example, Uber, which wants to become the platform to connect air taxi services, has set a timeline to operate their first commercial urban air taxis by 2023. Volocopter, a German-based UAM company, recently unveiled the world’s first air taxi vertiport in Singapore for completely autonomous flight testing. Airbus, a global leading aviation manufacturer, has invested extensively in multiple UAM projects, including Vahana (a one-passenger EVTOL platform), Voom (on-demand helicopter booking platform) and City Airbus (a four-passenger EVTOL platform). The company sees the increasing congestion and trend of urbanization as a catalyst for sustainable transportation in urban environments.

Regardless of the maturity of technology, it will take more than just technologists and urban planners to make Urban Aerial Mobility a meaningful and impactful part of cities’ future transportation networks.

As Jonathan Hartman, Disruptive Technologies Lead for Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky Innovations’ group explains, “We need to be talking about this in a more systematic way. This includes reaching out beyond aerospace and to others we don’t normally interact with. I don’t know the last time an elevator company talked to a helicopter company, but that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Sikorsky is developing enabling technologies to help make urban mobility a reality, including electric propulsion, autonomy and fleet management. But as Hartman will tell you, “Sikorsky fundamentally believes that the environment that these vehicles will operate in will be just as important as the vehicle itself.”

For Urban Aerial Mobility to become a reality, we’ll need to bring together policymakers at all levels, to talk about decision points that haven’t ever been considered, and to assess the impact on a scale and timeframe unique to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Startups in Los Angeles are investing heavily in urban aviation to create new modes of efficient and safe transportation in one of the most congested cities in the world. Skyryse, for example, is focused on developing community-friendly air transportation infused with cutting-edge technology. Mark Groden, CEO of Skyryse, explains, “Our goal is to democratize the air, and there’s no better place to start than in Los Angeles, the heart of aerospace innovation. As an industry co-chair of the Urban Aerial Mobility Working Group, we look forward to sharing our vision for our transportation future.”

What is the World Economic Forum doing on drones

Drones, also known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), are beginning to transform the way goods, people, and data move around the world. Drones are most often characterized as an aircraft that has no on-board pilot, is capable of being controlled remotely or by a flight plan created by a human or in some unique cases autonomously, by leveraging GPS and onboard sensors.

From supply-chain and logistics to energy generation and distribution, nearly every major sector of the economy has the potential to leverage drone technologies. Drone technology is neither uniform nor stagnant as it moves from early adoption to widespread inclusion across sectors.

As new airframes, battery technologies, and communication tools rapidly create safer and more secure performance, the drones themselves change shape, form, and function differently. For commercial applications, drones start as small as three grams or over 340 kilograms or they can be one centimetre in diameter or measure over 5.5 metres.

The greatest threats to realizing the benefits that autonomous aviation can provide stem from inadequate regulatory support, a lack of societal acceptance or trust, and limited implementations that drive adoption for meaningful results. The World Economic Forum is leading efforts to solve overcome and solve these challenges with projects like the New Paradigms for Drone Regulations and the Urban Aerial mobility Challenge.

Read more about the work the World Economic Forum Drones and Tomorrow’s Airspace Team is doing to promote pilot projects and develop regulations that will support and enable the next generation of autonomous technologies in the sky.

Local policy opportunities

The City of Los Angeles, a long-time leader both in aerospace and in transportation technology, is creating an aerial mobility network integrated with its other transportation systems and investments. Led by the Mayor’s Office, the City is working with the World Economic Forum to develop an international cohort of cities. Although every city context is different, connecting city leaders in a global forum will illuminate early barriers, opportunities and lessons learned, which can be shared across communities.

“In L.A., we’re not ‘future-phobic’; we’re future-guiding. We believe that Urban Aerial Mobility can be a meaningful part of our transportation network, but only if we work hand-in-hand with communities, companies, and cities across the world to ensure that outcomes are safe, secure, sustainable, and equitable,” says Julia Thayne, Associate Director of Mobility Innovation for L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office and the World Economic Forum will collaborate over the next year to examine the challenges and opportunities of urban aerial mobility and to develop principles for governing new technologies in aviation.

Both policymakers and businesses must think about the needs and desired outcomes for next-generation mobility – especially before it is ready for implementation at-scale. And the L.A. Mayor’s Office and the World Economic Forum will be focusing on the big questions – around equity and pricing, workforce and operational licensing, digital management of the 3D right-of-way and the intragovernmental UTM, fleet management, cybersecurity and privacy, vehicle design and propulsion, land use and zoning, infrastructure and standardization, regulation of operations, permitting and tax revenues, and, of course, environmental considerations, chief among them noise and visual pollution require planning and careful consideration.

Urban Aerial Mobility can only become a meaningful component of urban transportation through careful municipal engagement, planning and industry support. By working together, creating an international effort for harmonization and connectivity – which is non-existent today – we can avoid the pitfalls that have prevented other forms of mobility from having a positive global impact.

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