Kevin Antcliff and I continue our discussion of electric regional air mobility. Antcliff is an aerospace engineer, formerly of NASA and now with the autonomous aviation startup Xwing. While at the US space agency, he started and led a large, cross-industry, collaborative study to assess regional air mobility (RAM) in the US, especially the impact of electrification of aviation and the business opportunities.
In the first half, we talked about his childhood full of aircraft and NASA connections and his early days at NASA, and then segued into electric regional air mobility. Antcliff teased apart the alphabet soup of UAM, AAM, and RAM, and then we focused on RAM and the report he led. A key part of it was a study he’d participated in just prior to the RAM effort, where he and his collaborators used standard flight modeling tools to determine that a 40% reduction in operational and maintenance costs would unlock the competitive value of the mostly unused thousands of public airports that exist in the US.
In the second part, we continued our conversation of the factors that would inhibit and support electrified regional air mobility, starting with the safety and perception of safety of passengers. NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) does include general aviation incidents, with around 16,000 incident records for Cessnas of all types, and over 600 for the newer Cirrus models. Neither Antcliff or I were sure if general aviation was included in the ASRS or not, but it is.
Regional air mobility will use commercial pilots, and in many cases multi-engines for redundancy, so those two key factors for general aviation flight safety will be addressed. Further, wake turbulence problems are much less likely on smaller airports, so another concern is diminished.
“Cirrus’ planes are in the general aviation category, and added a whole plane parachute — Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) — to reduce concerns in 1998.” Amusingly to me at least, of the 16 ASRS records for Cirrus aircraft incident including the words “parachute” or “CAPS,” none of them involved actually using the parachute, just consideration of using it in an incident, but eventual rejection as pilots were able to land safely without it.
But that still leaves some perception of greater risk. Human perception of safety becomes important with smaller planes, as most people haven’t flown in them. Aviophobia — the fear of flying — afflicts an estimated 2.5%-6.5% of the population, and one assumes it would be greater on smaller planes. The Short-Haul Revitalization Study did include customer acceptance of specific types of planes, but this was not directly tied to perceptions of risk but likely to turboprop vs jet engine characteristics.
As a form of transportation that people today aren’t used to in an age of over-reporting of unusual concerns, for example the zero-context over-reporting of Tesla fires, passenger perception of risk is a concern that has to be addressed strategically. Intelligent first movers in electric regional air space, such as ELECTRON Aviation, are fully aware of this and have a set of approaches to get them across the chasm. (Full disclosure: I’ve taken on an additional role as Advisory Board Member with ELECTRON.)
With the mention of Tesla, Antcliff’s new role comes to the fore. He’s now the Head of Product at Xwing, an autonomous flight startup. Autonomous flight is one of the three major things which will enable regional air mobility to become a major transportation mode, along with electric aircraft and digital air traffic control.
Autonomous flight is actually much simpler than autonomous driving, Antcliff explains. He points out that cars have to deal with other cars moving in close proximity, with constant changes in velocity and direction, driving at high speed in close proximity to solid objects, weird 6-way intersections, traffic signals, and of course pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. By comparison, aircraft taxi at 30-35 kph, the apron is flat, obstacles are far off to the sides, and there are few moving aircraft. Taxiways are kept clear of ground vehicles. In the air, aircraft are surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. Other aircraft are a long way away, and it’s moderately rare to encounter birds as well. Aircraft typically spend a lot more time going in a straight line at the same speed.
As Antcliff says, we’ve been flying for over a hundred years, and know what planes do in the air.
Xwing has a Caravan aircraft flying autonomously under an experimental certificate today with an observer pilot, and has applied to the FAA for approval to fly with only a ground-based pilot this year.
Pilots are an inhibitor for regional air mobility that will increase in concern as the space grows, so autonomy is necessary for the space to be truly disruptive of current aviation, so Xwing is well positioned for the future. After all, when we get to perhaps 10,000 regional aircraft operating, where do we get 10,000 pilots? Every regional air mobility early mover needs a strategy for this, as it will be a while before autonomous flying is approved broadly. ELECTRON, for example, is developing a dual-engine plane, and is actively working to establish more pre-orders with flight schools, as multi-engine training is a requirement. Further, new pilots have to fly smaller planes for the first few years until they have the flight hours to be considered for reasonable larger planes. This gives ELECTRON a bridge to autonomous flying in the future.
Pilotless aviation has other advantages. The pilot takes up space and adds weight, both of which diminish aircraft load. Further, commercial pilots have specific limits on the number of hours that they can safely fly in a week or month, and often end up deadheading back to their home base, or to the next airport they will fly from, once again reducing passenger load. Ground observers of autonomous aircraft, on the other hand, can do shift changes while the planes are flying, and lead relatively normal lives. This is similar to existing military drone operations out of Creech Airforce Base near Las Vegas, Nevada, where the pilots, crew, and support staff operate drones around the world remotely. Further, in the future it’s quite likely that ground teams will manage multiple autonomous planes as it will be rare that two will require intervention simultaneously. This is similar to the two-person teams that DroneSeed uses for the swarms of 5 heavy drones it uses to replant burnt out areas. There are significant periods of time when pilots in airplanes are doing nothing but observing the plane flying in a straight line.
The many electric aircraft startup founders, CEO and engineers I’ve spoken in the past year are all future-proofing their aircraft by partnering with autonomous aviation firms and including all of the sensors necessary for autonomous flight in the aircraft from the beginning.
Xwing is free of military ties, something which is a serious strategic risk for many aviation startups, in my opinion. The urban air mobility space founders and advisors I’ve spoken to have regularly consistently referenced the military market for their electric vertical or short takeoff and landing aircraft, but this doesn’t lead to sensible commercial aircraft. The US has tended to treat some co-developed technologies as proscribed technologies not to be shared with specific other countries such as China, so avoiding military ties is strategically wise in my opinion.
This was a point of discussion in my recent talk with Wilma Suen, most recently VP of Portfolio Strategy & Forecasting for the largest aircraft leasing organization in the world, GE, before the company sold it to its largest competitor. Her take is somewhat divergent, in that she sees all major commercial aerospace firms as being subsidized by their military contracts. Her thoughts on my projection of aviation demand through 2100 are in a separate article.
Air traffic control is another inhibiting factor that will emerge as a concern. Right now, Xwing uses the plane as a local airspace to air traffic control link to enable conversations from their ground station for guidance. Air traffic control doesn’t know that they are talking to a person in a booth on the ground a long way away, and think that they are talking to a pilot in the plane. The air traffic controller tells the operator what route they want the aircraft to follow, and the ground operator draws dots in space for the aircraft to fly through and it does. But that won’t necessarily scale effectively, so digital air traffic control will emerge as well.
Digital air traffic control drops costs as well, but isn’t necessary for electric regional air mobility to start. Antcliff made the point in the study that each of the 3 factors — electrification, autonomy, and digital air traffic control — is independent, and each reduces costs. This is unlike urban air mobility where perhaps 5 very difficult hurdles all have to be present and operational before any aircraft can fly.
Airports are becoming clean energy hubs, and we talked about that as well. There are hundreds of airports around the world building solar already, and this will just increase. Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, is building a 120 MW solar farm. 140 airports across the US have already started renewable energy projects. Groningen Airport in the Netherlands has a 21.9 MW solar farm. The intersection of this with regional air mobility for cheap, locally produced electricity for fuel is a big opportunity. It’s also a big opportunity for behind-the-meter storage, so developers like Convergent Energy + Power in North American and Intelligent land Investments Ltd in the UK likely will be looking at this opportunity.
Airports have the potential to become ground-transportation fueling centers for truck fleets as well, not to mentioning charging vehicles that are visiting the airport for passenger or cargo purposes. One thought that came up was night charging for electric bus fleets. An unanswered question for us is whether airports will have to become regulated utilities in order to ‘fuel’ electric airplanes and ground vehicles.
Many companies and investors were seduced by the Jetsons vision of urban air mobility and rotorcraft, but that’s not the opportunity. The contributors to the regional air mobility whitepaper, such as Ampaire, Xwing, Reliable Robotics, Electra.Aero, magniX, and several others, get the opportunity and are working toward delivering value in the space. That’s the space that investors should be putting money into. Urban air mobility is something that might be viable with fixed rotorcraft after 2040 when digital air traffic control, battery energy density, and autonomous passenger flight are solved problems and widespread.
Antcliff’s closing thoughts summarized why regional air mobility is such an exciting opportunity. Autonomous flight such as Xwing’s will start with cargo first, building hours of proven safety over less populated areas. The local airport you may not have even known existed will be a catalyst for change, eliminating long drives, 2-hour waits, and lost luggage with quiet, pollution-free aviation. Targeted investments and policy decisions will accelerate this transformation.
Imagine you’re a family of 4 heading to a ski resort in the region. You take an electric Uber to your local small airport. You’re in the air in 15 minutes. You land near the resort and another electric Uber takes you to the hill. You fly quietly over the often dangerous mountain roads, enjoying the scenery from the air. All for the cost of getting there by other means, but in a fraction of the time. Let’s bring the joy of flight back to aviation.
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