Aviation has to decarbonize, and it’s a hard target between direct CO2, nitrous oxides, black carbon, and contrails. But that hasn’t stopped the aerospace industry from trying hard to expand its markets instead of actually reducing its carbon footprint. I backed into this turf war somewhat accidentally, when I pointed out that the current rash of high-market cap electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft mostly have unclothed-emperor business models.
There’s an overlapping alphabet soup — UAM, AAM, and RAM — at the middle of this, and it’s worth disambiguating it so that the actually worthwhile babies don’t get thrown out with the bathwater that the other babies have deeply muddied. They all share the last two letters, AM, which stands for air mobility. The first letters, U, A, and R are where the problems lie. U is for urban, A is for advanced, and R is for regional. And only regional has a significant value proposition.
Urban air mobility’s hypothesis is Blade Runner’s future. Lots and lots of autonomous and non-autonomous vertical take-off and landing air craft are going to be wandering around cities in this vision of the future. They don’t seem to get that this vision is mostly featured in dystopias. It has a few overlapping components. The first is that cities are going to install lots of what they call vertiports on top of existing parking garages, and repurpose and add existing helipads on other buildings. The second is that VTOL craft are quieter, so they’ll be allowed to land in a lot more places. The third is that most of the electric helicopters will convert to a flying mode with pivoting electric rotors and turbofans so that they can actually make it somewhere before running out of juice. There are a tiny number of use cases in this space that have legs. And it tends to feature a lot of hydrogen #hopium along with the silly sexiness of helicopters that turn into airplanes.
Advanced air mobility is the rebranding of urban air mobility, as the aerospace industry and NASA presumably realized that they didn’t actually have much of a business case and expanded their scope to include more regional air mobility and more use cases that aren’t about flying complex rotorcraft over lots and lots of people’s heads. All of the silly urban air mobility use cases are still jammed into this uninformative moniker. NASA officially started calling UAM AAM in 2020. Still lots and lots of focus on mediocre electric helicopters that transform into mediocre winged aircraft in order to have any range at all.
Regional air mobility is the completely sensible quasi-subset of advanced air mobility that’s worth talking about. It points out that there are 5,050 small airfields in the US and 2,800 in Europe, all of which are completely suitable for conventional electric aircraft with fixed wings, and are really close to all the people. Current technology allows 400-600 km flight ranges, and that range will expand quite a bit every five years. Certification of propeller electric drive-trains for fixed-wing planes has already occurred, so there’s a path to get there quickly. Certification of small, fixed-wing planes is also an extremely well-trodden and obvious path with clear timelines. There will be innumerable short-haul passenger and cargo flights that are electrified by the end of this decade.
All three of UAM, AAM, and RAM project a future where the current highly analog air traffic control system and human pilots are strongly supplemented and assisted by digital air traffic control and autonomously flying aircraft watched over by pilot oversight, whether inside the aircraft or on the ground. This is reasonable, and also well into the future. It’s going to take a long, long time before approved autonomous and digitally flight controlled aircraft are anywhere near human beings. It’s great to invest in the work being done in this space, but silly to assume much of it will apply to aircraft over heavily populated areas. Side note: I’ve launched a couple of advanced automation projects with geographical visualization and KPIs in the transportation space, including one with Navigation Canada for flights. It’s non-trivial to digitize and automate air traffic control, but also worthwhile.
As far as can be told, most of urban air mobility and advanced air mobility are the aerospace industry trying to come up with new and exciting business opportunities, ones that upon inspection don’t really stand up to scrutiny. By contrast, regional air mobility looks pragmatically at what exists today, the requirement to decarbonize aviation, actually useful current use cases, and then defines a solution that leverages assets, existing, and near term technology, and delivers actually business value. It’s the part of the space that will deliver value quickly, and then build on it strongly.
NASA is in both sides of this, thankfully, not just the UAM/AAM side. When I published on the lack of a business case for electric VTOLs in cities vs electric fixed wing planes on regional airports, Kevin Antcliff, an aerospace engineer employed until recently at NASA, reached out with the April 2021 NASA regional air mobility report he’d participated in authoring. Antcliff is now over at Xwing, building useful parts of the autonomous flying system of the future.
The NASA RAM study reasonably points out that there are 5,050 airports in the US alone, and that only 0.6% of them transport the vast majority of passengers and cargo. As Anders Forslund, CEO and founder of Heart Aerospace, pointed out to me a couple of months ago, a lot of that comes down to the economics of current generation turbofans, which are incredibly efficient when flown longer distances at high altitudes, but make no fiscal sense for regional short hops. Simple, cheap to operate electric airplanes turn the economics on their head, making regional air highly viable again, hence United’s Mesa subsidiary put a pre-order in for 200 of Heart’s 19-seater electric airplane, targeted for 2026 certification and start of commercial delivery. The NASA report’s assessment is that a 40% reduction in operating costs — very much in range with straightforward, fixed-wing, battery-electric planes — would activate this market opportunity.
Similarly, in Europe there are over 2,800 airstrips suitable for Electron’s five-passenger passenger and cargo shuttles, also targeted for certification and initial manufacturing in five years, something Josef Mouris, Electron’s co-founder and CEO, pointed out to me recently.
By contrast, my discussion with BLADE Urban Air Mobility CEO Rob Wiesenthal and CFO Will Heyburn left me assured that while they were working hard to make their market of flying tiny numbers of affluent people and transplantable organs climate neutral, it left me completely unconvinced that electric VTOLs were going to expand the rotorcraft niche or displace any fixed wing flights.
This is not to say that there isn’t value in electrifying existing urban rotorcraft, or that there aren’t some edge use cases of value. Reducing urban noise is an excellent goal, and having been in the flight path of a helicopter landing pad in São Paulo, the significant noise reduction possible with electric rotorcraft will be welcomed by many. Similarly, while the projections of autonomous flying drones zipping around cities delivering packages are equally silly fantasies that don’t stand the slightest scrutiny when compared to slow-speed wheeled autonomous electric delivery vehicles on the ground, as per Anthony Townsend’s Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car, there are emergency cases where UAVs make a lot of sense. Fire department inspections of the roofs and sides of burning buildings, delivery of organs for transplant, and other critical services will lead to some heavier UAVs in urban areas.
It’s just that the idea that urban rotorcraft will multiply in number and actually add value to the urban fabric as a result falls apart quickly. They have a few things that they do well and are suited for in the civilian world, mostly delivering affluent people to airports or across geographical obstacles, and getting patients and organs to hospitals. The requirement of either of those things isn’t radically increasing. Sure, people who want to avoid Manhattan traffic to JFK will appreciate them being cheaper, trading a peak Uber Black fare for an electric chopper flight to save 40 minutes or so, but it’s not like 10,000 or even 500 people will be commuting by electric VTOL from Manhattan to New Jersey every day.
Advanced air mobility white papers are spewing nonsense. In Canada, the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium (CAAM… don’t ask me what happened to the extra C) released an economic impact assessment white paper in November of 2020. It claims massive value and jobs for Greater Vancouver. What use cases does it project, and how does it calculate value?
- Airport shuttle services – Given the RAV line to the airport has carried as many as 230,000 passengers a day to and from YVR, it’s unclear what a handful of electric helicopters will do to assist. That would be an affluent person’s desire, not a sensible value add to Vancouver.
- On-Demand Air Taxi – Yes, all of those vertiports on the top of parking garages with an app for people to book a flight. Right. Once again, very limited demand to fly above Vancouver’s traffic, very limited locations for vertiports, very significant operational concerns, requirement to be 1,000 ft above tallest object within 2,000 feet before starting to move forward, etc.. Not that there aren’t people who would use this, but it would be a rounding error of at most dozens of affluent people a day. Not a viable or likely to be permitted concern. Every attempt to do this so far that isn’t a scheduled hop from Manhattan to JFK has failed, even in helicopter happy cities like São Paulo.
- Regional Transport Services – This is the odd theory that people will travel to one of the non-existent vertiports, get into a (still uncertified) Rube Goldberg tilt-rotor electric VTOL, and fly from Vancouver to Seattle instead of going to a much more reasonable local airport and flying just as quickly and a lot more cheaply. It’s a Jetson fantasy that doesn’t stand scrutiny.
- Medical and Emergency Operations and Services – Now this is an actual use case, in that it is an existing use case that has value today and tomorrow. It’s completely adequately served by existing heliports and hospital rooftop heliports, so the infrastructure is there. It will just get quieter and cheaper. But there’s almost no value in using vastly more expensive tilt-rotors to do it, as they’ll be the same cost to operate as current helicopters, and there is very little emissions due to the very limited amount of flying in this niche. When fixed-rotor electric helicopters are fit for purpose, they’ll be adopted, and until then current helicopters work just fine, although it would be good to switch them to SAF biofuels.
- Business Aviation – This would be affluent top executives being taken to the private hangers were their private jets await. Once again, a tiny edge condition that is already met where egos and lobbying have made it possible with existing helicopters, and not a growth market.
- Air Metro – This is perhaps the silliest of all of the use cases in the ‘economic assessment’. This deeply absurd idea posits that 12-passenger electric VTOL buses will fly fixed routes to pick up 10-12 passengers and disgorge them at various vertiport stations dotted around the urban fabric. Over 500,000 people used Vancouver’s Skytrain system daily pre-COVID, and it will return to those levels. People sufficiently affluent and full of themselves to pay flying bus rates are not people who like to share. A ‘transit’ system which serves the o.01% is not a transit system.
Probably due to BC’s odd circumstance of having Ballard and a lot of other misguided hydrogen-for-energy advocates, the white paper mentions hydrogen 99 times, while only mentioning electric 31 times and batteries 9 times. It’s just as fantasy-laden for aviation-fuel alternatives as it is with its use cases.
Frankly, I find it difficult to imagine the entire economic white paper not being laughed out of rooms where it’s presented, as the emperor is so clearly without clothes and has no chance of covering his wattles and warts with any. But the aerospace industry lobbying is pushing this concept hard, and airports are looking for what they need to do to remain viable in a lower-passenger, post-COVID future. While the Vancouver Economic Commission is at the table, one hopes cooler heads will prevail.
Most of the transformer electric VTOLs like Joby, Archer, and Lilium are just getting ahead of themselves. Rotorcraft work just fine for their small niche, and in the future, much simpler, cheaper, lower maintenance rotorcraft with fixed rotors and higher energy density batteries will fill that niche. While Ehang’s customer cuisinart isn’t the right form factor and autonomy is far from ready, at least it has fixed rotors and is dirt simple otherwise. Most of UAM and AAM plays are aerospace businesses trying to push string uphill.
Simple, cheap to maintain, cheap to operate, safe to fly fixed-wing planes with electric motors will take off from a lot more airports and fly to a lot more airports delivering people and cargo in our increasingly on demand world. Policy makers and investors take note: regional air mobility is vastly more scalable, an actual path to a decarbonized future and much lower risk.
Featured image courtesy NASA.