The challenges of urban mobility will not be solved by new flashy technology alone, untested and uncrewed. While the Earth gets hotter each and every year, congestion rises with increased urbanization: As global populations reaching middle class status purchase their own household car or use an aeroplane for the first time, transportation systems are more strained than ever. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the number of commercial aircraft passengers travelling in the US will increase by more than 50% over the next 20 years. This means longer waits, more delays, greater environmental impact and an opportunity for technological disruption. How this disruption manifests is up for debate. Biofuels and clean propulsion will help, but what everyone seems to be talking about these days is what we grew up with: the Jetsons’ flying sedan. The dukes of the aviation industry have all set their eyes on these new forms of urban mobility, even using CES 2019 to showcase their latest visions.

Uber Elevate envisions an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) platform that lifts those that can afford it out of congestion and into the skies. In April 2018, the company presented its vision for aerial mobility: for the price of $129, you could travel from downtown San Francisco to downtown San Jose, replacing a 90-minute trip by rail with a 15-minute one by air. Bell, in addition to other manufacturers like Aurora Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Aircraft, Mooney and Embraer, plan to develop eVTOL aircraft that satisfy short distance urban operations. Bell Helicopter CEO Mitch Snyder announced that his company will be rolling out flights of this uncertified aircraft, in a US jurisdiction in 2020. “We are optimistic,” Snyder explained, “about the positive impact VTOLs will have on addressing transportation challenges in Dallas–Fort Worth and other cities around the globe.” Uber and its affiliated manufacturers are bullish on urban aerial mobility, but do the regulatory, economic, and safety experiences suggest and support their timelines? Will emerging mobility solutions really be happening in cities first or does it make more sense to connect disconnected and underserved communities in rural areas?

A 50-year wait and counting … the Jetsons' famous flying car.
A 50-year wait and counting … the Jetsons' famous flying car.
Image: YouTube screengrab

Experiences and timelines with unmanned aerial systems, or drones, may serve as a guide post, but not a direct parallel, for how new forms of aerial mobility will move forward. Drones have experienced a mire of regulatory development that has stunted the growth of the industry. From security concerns derailing an expansion of operation for flights over people or beyond visual line of sight more recently, to an unclear framework for how states and local municipalities will assist in managing operations over their own cities, these lessons could play out, in high frequency, urban passenger flight operations. As a direct result, start-ups in the drone space have largely failed to get their piece of the $82.1 billion market projection made in 2013 by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Major bankruptcies and acquisitions have rocked the drone landscape over the past few years with early leaders such as Airware and 3D Robotics calling it quits under the pressure of VC-backed expectations and an inability to gain access to airspace that would support scaled commercial business models. With the societal demand for urban aerial mobility driving VC investment similarly to motivation in the drone industry circa 2013, it would be wise to recognize the regulatory and social barriers, rather than focusing exclusively on the technological challenges. One must only look to the recent $1.5 trillion valuation by Morgan Stanley by 2040 of the urban air mobility (UAM) industry to see why investors are looking to participate. The value is there, but are those tasked with overseeing the rollout in a safe and secure manner ready?

Drone downers

The most important thing to learn from the drone industry experience over the last five years is that regulation and certification will take much longer than expected, even with a political mandate. The US Congress’s deadlines for widespread integration of drones into the airspace by 2015 is still nowhere in sight. It isn’t inability or desire, but rather that the technologies and use are evolving so quickly that the traditional mechanisms upon which governments rely to regulate simply don’t meet the challenge of speed, scale and scope of emerging technologies like AI-driven autonomy, data-driven modelling and new forms of propulsion. Five years ago, unmanned traffic management – a very promising digital infrastructure service that can facilitate autonomous flight management without human resourcing – was largely unknown.

Hyped-up timelines and characterizing the challenge of urban aerial mobility as solely regulatory is also inaccurate. The drone industry suffered significantly from early attempts to characterize technology as being able to “sense and avoid”, because companies felt that would be the key to accessing airspace; the core difference between drones and crewed aviation being a pilot on board could sense and avoid traffic, and a drone could not. In fact, those “sense and avoid” experiences, when tested, demonstrated a fundamental disconnect between the expectations of regulators and manufacturers, leading to a mistrust between industry and government. Aviation functions on a “works each time, every time and as expected” mentality. Until recently, consumer-grade drones operated as intended rarely and without much confidence; lost link situations with degraded video was common and environmental interferences – especially in cities – were not well described. We’ve luckily escaped without major injury, but the same form of experimentation will be much more challenging for passenger vehicles intent on operating in densely urban environments.

Image: Times of India

As aerial mobility becomes a reality, let’s not convince ourselves, or investors, that it will happen in urban environments first. Data will have to be collected in real-time through well-defined, aviation business-case supported, pilot projects in rural areas; the same areas drones have found replicable value. Where the need is greatest, society will be most willing to accept implementation. At their most effective, drones are delivering blood, vaccines and other medical supplies to save lives and prevent disease in disconnected sections of society. These are rural settings where the risk from flight is less and in operation to solve a real need. We should apply this same knowledge to aerial mobility to create a universal standard of mobility where infrastructure is failing and where populations have few options.

Rural operations for tests also make sense for safety. Drones are largely hindered by a lack of data that supports safety certification and an inability to reach the safety thresholds necessary for reliable and cyber-secure flights over populations. According to Chris Van Buiten, vice-president of innovations at Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, the scale being proposed is “50,000 aircraft flying 3,000 hours each annually – a total of 150 million flight hours per year. If the world’s safest helicopter today is lost at a rate of one per one million flight hours and we are talking 150 million flight hours per year, can our industry tolerate 150 YouTube videos of moms not making it home?” In the age of instant viral video, urban aircraft failures will simply not be tolerable, and the current state of technology is not ready for primetime.

The drone and the flying car are intimately related. Similar technologies, flight environments, opportunities and challenges characterize their role in society. The drumbeat for urban aerial mobility is getting louder, just as it did for drones in 2011. Yet here we are, seven years later, with an industry performing below expectations. Regulators are being asked to prioritize rulemaking and describe requirements in preparation for rollouts of UAM in the next two years. Manufacturers are looking for progressive governments to enable testing and operations while jurisdictions start to compete on timelines, integration and operation in a race to be the first. The landscape today may not look the same tomorrow, but so long as both private and public sectors learn from the recent past, maybe – just maybe – we’ll see agile frameworks that enable safety-conscious and realistic visions to emerge and serve society in an inclusive way.

In the meantime, it feels like technology deja vu.