What is Urban Air Mobility? An Airport Operator Primer

Just in case you’ve missed the news recently, drones are a big deal. Drones are a multi-billion dollar business, they are disrupting traditional business models and, most importantly for airport operators, they can literally just disrupt business. And, as you can imagine, just following the news doesn’t give you a necessarily clear or complete picture of our potential future with these things.

I’d like to jump in and look at one particular area (not even the cool flying part) of this phenomenon and it’s relationship to airports but before we do, I feel like it is necessary to scan the field and sort through some of the complexity.

We’ve Had UAVs, UASs, RPAS and now We’ve Got UAM?

There seem to be a million acronyms when it comes to drones. And a million mistakes when referring to them. I’ve already done it twice in this post and I’m only into my first sub-heading. Not all names and acronyms are really interchangeable.

Unmanned Aerial “something” seemed to be the early name adopted for these aircraft that lacked an on-board pilot. They were usually referred to as vehicles (UAVs) because they came in a vast array of configurations using different methods of producing lift. Then the purpose of the vehicles got in the way and they morphed into systems (UASs) or platforms (UAPs). And then sometimes, the “A” doesn’t even stay consistent with air, aircraft, airborne or autonomous all thrown into the mix.

The next complicating factor is control. If the device still has a human pilot manipulating controls in something close to real-time then this is a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPA or RPAS). The opposite is a device which operates without direct control either through a preprogrammed list of instructions or through a set of responses to detected signals - this is a drone.

But this isn’t a discrete distinction. The device could be a little bit of both. In one system I was familiar with, the vehicle operates as a drone for over 90% of its operation. It flies a calculated path over an area defined by the user and then in the last phase of flight, it became a piloted aircraft for the landing. A pilot could also intervene at any point but the aerial mission will be lost at that point.

Urban Air Mobility (UAM) is a different term altogether. This is all about a potential application of these technologies and even some existing aircraft technologies - such as piloted helicopters. Concepts being put forward tend to involve drones but not unmanned drones. This concept is all about getting people around our land-vehicle-congested cities.

Flying Cars

For me, the dream started in the final minutes of “Back to the Future” - “where we’re going, we don’t need roads”. For plenty of other people, it’s been longer and more than just dreaming. But so far, truly sustainable personal flying vehicles for movement within a city have not eventuated.

Perhaps the drone has been the key. Traditional pilot standards, traffic patterns, take-off landing infrastructure requirements and aeronautical technology have been roadblocks (if you’ll pardon the pun) to realising this dream. But the development of drones has overcome a lot of these issues - no pilot, vertical take-off and landing plus light-weight materials, electric motors, telemetry and lots of other cool things. On the small scale side, we’ve seen deliveries by drones, search and rescue with drones and swarms of drones create pictures in the sky. All these developments have become lessons learned for the Urban Air Mobility proponents.

Air Taxis

This term has been used in aviation before to mean on-demand, small aircraft charter. This small sector of the industry looks about to be taken over by UAM which has a lot more in common with its land-based namesake.

The UAM vision involves some form of airborne vehicle moving people around a city on-demand. The vagueness of this definition is due to the variety of solutions on the table or, even, in play. Airbus-company, Voom has introduced a helicopter-based service in two “mega” cities which appears similar to Uber. Using an app, customers can book a flight and be in the air within minutes, apparently.

The glamourous version of this service involves a pilotless rotor-based aircraft seating two passengers taking off vertically, zooming off to where they need to go by the most direct route possible. Uber, in particular, is looking for close integration with it existing business to make up the distance between door and UAM-base.

From left - Airbus’  Voom  &  Vahana ,  Uber’s Elevate  Partners  Karem  &  Embraer , and  Volocopter  ( there are lots more )

From left - Airbus’ Voom & Vahana, Uber’s Elevate Partners Karem & Embraer, and Volocopter (there are lots more)

Issues Galore

Obviously, there is still work to do. Technology work on the aircraft, interactions between such aircraft and existing airspace users and getting the travelling public used to pilotless rotor-based aircraft will be focus for most of the industry over the next few years.  Some of these issues get bigger as we get closer to the airport but airport-downtown travel is likely to be a big part of this future market - it already is for Voom.

In this series of posts, I’m going to look at considerations airport operators should have on their radar now when thinking about the future of their “landside” business. I’m going to come at it from the point of view that we want to harness this industry in advance rather than have air taxis landing on the apron in a couple of years and no way of transitioning those passengers through into traditional aircraft and vice versa.

Exploring Airport Operator Impacts & Opportunities

First, I’m going to have a look at potential physical requirements for accommodating these aircraft. We’ll have a look at currently international standards of helicopters and vertical take-off and landing aircraft as well as mock-ups of what the operators are thinking off. 

After this, I’ll be taking a Lean Six Sigma view off passenger management. This technology is truly disruptive as it will also have us reconsidering our labels of airside and landside and so on.  Lastly, I’d like to look into the off-airport opportunities and challenges that are not particularly new but interesting, nonetheless. 

I’d love to hear from other industry people that are looking into this generally and with respect to airports in particular. Please leave a comment below or send me an email or message on LinkedIn

Image credit: (c) Airbus