Perhaps the biggest challenge facing UAM integration is on-ground support infrastructure5. Airports aren’t the answer, due to safety concerns, so landing areas, charging stations and customer access points are required. German start-up, Volocopter6, envisions a network of rooftop “voloports” serving around 10,000 UAM passengers per day.
Airspace control is also important. An air traffic control (ATC) system monitoring air taxis and traditional traffic isn’t currently possible – safe integration of manned and unmanned traffic is best accomplished through autonomous Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) systems.
“Beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations will expand and enable flights only after autonomous UTM systems are available and fully functional,” says Tom Chamberlain, Underwriting Manager, Aerospace and General Aviation, AGCS. Further, once fully integrated, cybersecurity of the entire operation will become paramount.
“Redundant critical components, along with functioning sense-and-avoid technology and clear airborne priority rules, will also be required and will make eVTOLs more safe,” adds Thomas Kriesmann, Senior Underwriter, General Aviation, AGCS.
But, first, there have to be vehicles to meet the demand.
Although many companies are investing in various concepts, and some already flight-testing, the lack of inventory is a major problem. “Before being functional, years of vehicle testing and development are needed. Operational services, at least in the US, are years away,” says James Van Meter, Regional Head of Aviation Programs & Product Development – North America, AGCS.
One bottleneck is battery capacity, as power loss is a safety issue. Charging requirements need to evolve from recharging after every flight to recharging after five or so flights for full operational functionality. Performance degradation occurs as batteries lose power during flight, whereas efficiency actually improves as fuel is burned and weight is decreased with conventional aircraft.
Thousands of eVTOLs will need to be ready once UAM services launch – estimated to reach 23,000 by 2035, in a $32 billion passenger market. Currently, no company makes more than 700 vehicles a year. Mass production will require considerable investment7.
Regulatory approvals and certification testing for eVTOLs will also need to be worked out, difficult in the US and, to a lesser degree, Europe. Conversely, Asia and Middle East markets are more ready to roll. Only Dubai and Singapore are developing air taxi systems to launch within the next few years, although unmanned cargo operations are in full test-mode in 64 municipal areas around the world8.
“Existing regulations aren’t conducive to the rapid development and implementation of unmanned passenger vehicles within the next five years or more,” says Ryan Wallace, Assistant Professor, Department of Aeronautical Science, College of Aviation, at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The FAA is shy about integrating UAM technology into national airspace, a position likely to harden as more near-misses with small unmanned aircraft are reported at airports.
Less conservative, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued a proposal of airworthiness standards in October 2018 to clear initial hurdles enabling the safe operation of piloted air taxi and eVTOL aircraft in Europe9 – unmanned regulations have not yet been codified.
As UAM technology contributes new propulsion systems and vehicles that haven’t been certified or addressed by regulations10, stringent testing requirements will necessarily follow.
The transition to unmanned passenger service will require substantial shift of public trust. A fatal accident in the early years of development would damage confidence, investment and enthusiasm for the technology. The key to this technology will be a demonstrably safe, well-tested and certified vehicle.
According to a YouGov survey, only a quarter of US adults have heard of unmanned passenger drones and 54% reported they wouldn’t feel safe in one. Only 5% felt safe enough to ride in one11.
“People already travel on unmanned vehicles in most airport terminal shuttles and commercial flights routinely operate on autopilot, without thinking of safety,” says Chamberlain. Autonomous vehicles are predicted to eventually be safer than traditional aircraft.
Without a pilot onboard, a new automated communication and guidance system will need to be developed, performing identical functions as a manned crew while rapidly responding to ATC instructions to avoid traffic, weather or similar hazards. Safety measures will have to be robust to attract riders – and investors.
In case of accidents, liability questions will shift from pilots to developers, manufacturers or operators. “Given today’s litigious conditions, I doubt most companies will roll-out a product without substantial validation testing,” says Wallace. This is where we enter the domain of insurance.