Even as NBAA was releasing a new report this week touting the benefits of urban air mobility (UAM) for business aviation, two panels of industry experts offered diverse opinions about its future this week at NBAA-BACE in Las Vegas.
The report, “Business Aviation Embraces Electric Flight, How Urban Air Mobility Creates Enterprise Value,” was a joint undertaking of NBAA and Nexa Advisors, a financial firm that has done extensive research into the UAM market. The report was part of a larger study on the potential of UAM and global markets for the next 20 years. “These reports highlight the potential of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft to transform short-range air transportation, especially for those companies and individuals that use business aviation, “ said NBAA senior v-p Mike Nichols.
“These companies are expected to be among the first eVTOL users because these vehicles will solve the ‘last mile’ or ‘door-to-door’ challenge by moving people quickly from a company office to meetings in city centers that are near existing heliports or newly-constructed vertiports, or to outlying airports so passengers can depart on a business aircraft or scheduled airline flight,” he added.
In the face of this promise of a potential market, calculated by investment banking giant Morgan Stanley to be worth anywhere from $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion, daunting questions remain regarding these vehicles, the public acceptance of them, and the applicable regulatory framework. While most industry experts agree that fully autonomous, pilotless vehicles that are heavily dependent on artificial intelligence (AI) are required to make UAM technically and economically viable, a clear pathway and timetable for the beginning of commercial service has yet to emerge.
According to Boeing Horizon X’s Paul McDuffee, the key question is: “How do you integrate these vehicles and existing airspace structure? How do you enable routine operations in controlled airspace?”
When it comes to UAM, artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be the “yellow brick road,” according to UAM executives and technical experts. “The logistics will explode,” said AirProxima’s Ed Crump. “These aircraft will have to have AI.” Both Crump and Joby Aviation’s Kate Fraser agreed that implementing full-scale UAM could not happen without AI.
But implementing AI is difficult and expensive, Crump said. “Very few companies are successful with AI,” he warned, suggesting instead that the industry should initially set its sights on “augmented intelligence” that allows humans to make decisions better and faster. Nevertheless, he intimated that AI will be necessary for fully autonomous operations. “Humans aren’t good at doing the same thing every time” and “getting humans out of the loop will certainly improve safety.”
Fraser expressed confidence that “we will get to full autonomy” after assuaging the concerns of regulators and the general public, the majority of whom continue to view eVTOLs as unsafe, according to recent studies.
But where and when commercial UAM service takes flight first remains the big question. Glenn Isbell, Bell v-p of rapid prototyping, thinks Europe has a jump because, unlike the FAA, EASA already has issued a regulatory framework for eVTOLs. While there are divergent views as to where a market for UAMs first takes shape, most panelists seemed to think that vehicles would enter commercial service sometime between 2024 and 2028.
Joby’s Fraser thinks the long-discussed problem of battery life has been solved for “short hops.” But questions of public acceptance, affordability, and airspace and ground access remain. Kaydon Stanzione of eVTOL builder Jaunt Air Mobility, cut the former to the quick, posing the question, “If you are a parent, are you going to put your children in that aircraft?”
In the face of the swirling entropy surrounding this nascent air industry, Boeing’s McDuffee, a 50-year-veteran of the aviation business, remains optimistic. “We have a long way to go, but we will get there. This technology is here to stay and it’s not going away.”