Will UAM take off?
In 1962s, the Jetson’s The Family of the Future! burst on to American TV offering viewers a glimpse of lifestyle of tomorrow. With the date of that ‘future’ fast approaching (believed to be 2021), there has been no shortage of commentators wondering where their robot nannies and other futuristic household gadgets are. Most memorable, of course, were the Jetson’s flying cars, widely believed to be the most fantastic of all the inventions. Yet recent developments in the world of urban air mobility (UAM) suggest that such a mode of transport may be closer than we think. With several proof-of-concept trials to support the feasibility of UAM, is this ‘futuristic’ mode of travel set to take off?
Airbus and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) have recently signed a memorandum of understanding to enable UAM in Singapore. The collaboration aims to bring UAM services and platforms to reality in Singapore’s urban environment, with the target to enhance industry productivity and improve the country’s regional connectivity. Another German company, Volocopter has also identified Singapore as a prime location to test its fully electric manned air taxis, in partnership with local predominant ride hailing app, Grab. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, Wisk, a joint venture between Kitty Hawk and Boeing has proposed trials of their unmanned craft in the Christchurch region. While there are many obvious differences between these two urban landscapes, the range of the Wisk is only 25km, so the focus remains on short-distance urban flights.
So, is this the solution to urban congestion or just pie in the sky? As cities and roads have grown more congested, focus has increasingly turned to the skies above as alternative routes. NASA, Boeing, Airbus and Uber have all thrown their hats in the ring to develop potential short-hop, manned or unmanned, electric aircraft, all utilising vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology. In the end, the dream is the craft which can pick you up from the pad on your building’s roof top or drop you off in the car park to go to the cinema. Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter cites another Sci-Fi universe as inspirational, namely, Luc Bessons The Fifth Element, which features car flying on multiple levels through the ‘canyons’ created by towering buildings in New York City.
There are many challenges and potential criticisms for this upsurge in urban air mobility. One primary area of concern is safety. Put simply, fewer people walk away unharmed from an airborne vehicle accident than one on the ground. Both the Wisk and the Volocopter boast in-built redundancies, meaning they can lose several of the electric-powered rotors which provide lift before the craft is in danger of losing altitude. Then there is the question of manned or unmanned craft. A pilot introduces the element of user error, but critics of unmanned aerial vehicles point to the failure to develop a reliably safe driverless car, without introducing the complexities of air travel.
Sustainability is another key area of debate. Most vehicles in development are electric, so many advocates argue that UAM schemes may come to represent the greenest way to get around. Eventually they could be powered by solar or other renewable sources. However, there are carbon-costs associated with building and developing the aircraft, and as most proposed designs are for one or two passengers, it will take many hundreds of journeys to pay off the carbon debt.
Another criticism often levelled at UAM schemes, is that they offer a transportation scheme for the few, rather than the many. The designs currently under development are for air taxis, small vehicles for single passengers or small groups. It seems inevitable that it will remain an elite mode of transport, even as the technology develops and production costs come down, for there must be a limit to the number of EVTOL craft any metropolis can support?
Urban congestion is ultimately an artefact of increasingly populous cities, something the Jetson’s never had to contend with. What would the desire for individual ‘family’ aircraft mean for our Urban landscape, or should I say ‘skyscape’? Many critics argue that the solution must be to focus on developing greener and more effective modes of public transportation, such as the elevated bus, a Chinese design for a large public passenger vehicle which runs on rails straddling a road, while allowing traffic to pass underneath.
So, will UAM bring us closer to the cities of the future? Or are these trials little more than publicity stunts? The answer will no doubt lie somewhere in the middle. Unlike the Jetson’s we will probably never see the rise of the ‘flying car’ (or EVTOL craft) as a family vehicle – modern urban population density renders that an impossible dream. However, there is little doubt they will form part of the solution for our future urban transportation, probably in conjunction with other forms of transport. In the course of developing and refining these craft, there will no doubt be technological advancements and refinements with wider applications than just air mobility. As these percolate through transportation technology, we can hope to see those applications across many forms of transport, bringing sustainability to the forefront of the sector as a whole …
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