The emerging concept known as Urban Air Mobility (UAM), is one of the most interesting markets the aeronautical industry has ever seen. In a recent post, “Air taxis on the Urban Air Mobility horizon” (link), I focused on just one application, air taxis. In recent years, there have been numerous demonstrations and events showcasing these next-generation models; and on several occasions, they have revealed surprising levels of technological maturity.
Today, there are more than two hundred active air taxi projects around the world.
In Europe, the German company Volocopter is internationally recognised for its successful progress on the road to bringing urban mobility to the third dimension. Its two-passenger prototype, VoloCity (eVTOL) moves thanks to the power of its 18 rotors powered by nine electric batteries. Volocopter has conducted full-scale demonstrations of VoloCity in Germany, Dubai, Helsinki, Singapore (TRL 7) and beyond.
The launch of commercial flights is estimated to take place in two to three years, even though the EASA SC-VTOL certification is still a work in progress. This is one of the main barriers affecting the air taxi market today.
But the story does not end there. The German firm has not been satisfied with developing aerial platforms, but instead is involved in another area of UAM: construction and management of infrastructures by establishing strategic relationships. Volocopter and Skyports (UK) partnered to create the Voloport, the first vertiport landing centre, unveiled in Singapore in 2019.
On the other hand, Lilium is one of the most cutting-edge German companies in the sector. Its prototype, Lilium JET (eVTOL) has a five-passenger capacity and is designed with 36 electric motors that allow it to reach 300 km/h with a range of up to 60 minutes. The current test aircraft is a large-scale demonstrator, the data of which is being used to inform the serial design of the aircraft. This is occurring simultaneously, in accordance with strict aerospace processes and guidelines established by the pertinent regulatory authorities (TRL 7). The aim is to obtain the EASA SC-VTOL in the next 3 years, and also certification by the FAA in the United States.
This is also one of the most ambitious firms to join in developing infrastructure. Lilium and Ferrovial (Spain) recently announced (January 2021) a collaboration agreement to develop and exploit a network of vertiports along the peninsula of Florida, USA.
Airbus, Europe’s aerospace industry giant, has also positioned itself as one of the UAM market benchmarks. It has joined the initiative and taken advantage of its technological know-how in vertical flight, as well as its track record in managing aerospace systems that involve certification, industrialisation and related services. Their efforts are focussed specifically on developing their CityAirbus. This is a full-scale, four-seater, multi-copter (eight fixed-pitch propellers and eight motors) demonstration vehicle aimed at advancing remotely piloted electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) (TRL 6).
Now, although Spain is not among the main countries developing urban air mobility, it welcomes potential market drivers such as Tecnalia, which has received awards from several entities (including ENAIRE) and has achieved recognitions for Lauren, its air taxi prototype. In 2019, it launched its single-seater model (eVTOL) based on a 4-motor configuration attached to a main structure. They performed their last demonstration at the Donostia Arena in July 2018 (TRL 5).
Turning now to a more global framework that goes beyond the borders of Europe, start-ups have played the leading role, especially in the area of developing passenger aerial platforms. Most are from the United States, as a result Uber’s 2016 Uber Elevate network, intended to offer shared air taxi services in several cities in the US by 2023. It selected several partners to help build its network. However, in December 2020, due to pressure caused by the COVID-19 crisis and in view of divesting from secondary activities or those with a less certain future, Uber Elevate was acquired by one of the founding partners, start-up Joby Aviation, which is currently the beneficiary of one of the largest total investments in the UAM market. Furthermore, their model (as yet unnamed) powered by six electric motors, with capacity for five passengers and a range of over 240 km, is undergoing an FAA testing program that will last for several years in order to certify the vehicle for commercial operations (TRL 7).
On the other side of the world, the Chinese company EHang has become the world’s leading company in technology platforms for autonomous aerial vehicles (AAV). Its two-passenger EHang 216 is powered by 16 high-performance electric motors mounted on eight folding twin-rotor arms, with a range of 40 km and reaching 130 km/hr.
This model’s diverse applications, flight demonstrations around the world and its repeated participation in research projects related to UAM (AMU-LED, GOF 2.0, SAFIR-Med Project, Paris Region, etc.) make it one of the industry’s favourites (TRL 8).
Likewise, the automobile company Hyundai is working on developing a network of personal aerial vehicles (PAV) called S-A1 PAV. This five-passenger model is fully electric and winged. However, currently, only one model exists, on a reduced scale (TLR 5).
Both EHang and Hyundai are working on the development of projects that span various branches of urban air mobility. The former plans to build the E-Port, an autonomous vertiport model that will speed up the commercialization of EHang AAV in the tourist industry, specifically in China. The latter is working on HUB terminals and Purpose-Built Vehicles (for personal use), which favour the UAM ecosystem, in addition to collaborating with other entities like Urban-Air Port (UK) to deploy a full-scale vertiport prototype that will include live electric VTOL demonstrations in the UK, in the cities of Coventry (2021) and Birmingham (2022).
All of the above indicates that, while the term “air taxi” might have seemed crazy a few years ago, the truth is that this idea is no longer so far from reality. All the progress reflected in the models produced in different parts of the world show how the interest and trust placed in the system have made it possible to develop these concepts beyond the limits of science fiction.
Now is the time to think about this new sector that will shape a part of the aeronautics industry, about the key players that will intervene and the strategic relationships that will define the new market.