The dawn of the jet age unlocked new possibilities for long-distance travel and commerce, with commercial aviation becoming the world’s safest form of travel. The aviation industry’s ability to effectively manage operational risk has created expectations among the travelling public, regulatory authorities and other government stakeholders regarding safety. Therefore, to gain acceptance, new forms of air transport will need to achieve levels of safety performance consistent with conventional aviation operations. UAM operations will need to assure safety through adherence to regulatory requirements and industry standards that have contributed to aviation’s current safety record.
Included are processes used to certify aircraft, air operators and personnel. In addition, the implementation of advanced safety management systems is essential to proactively identify safety performance and mitigate any associated risks. Keenly aware of this fact, electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) manufacturers who target passenger travel are designing and certifying their aircraft for extremely high levels of safety, reliability and design assurance. Distributed electric propulsion, combined with highly automated decision-making and operational control capabilities, are examples of technological innovations that will enable safe and sustainable air transportation in urban environments.
Through the process of engaging city and industry stakeholders, one priority outcome became clear – it does not make sense to devote resources, energy and commitment to opening the urban sky to new forms of travel unless these new modes improve environmental outcomes. Policy-makers throughout the process pointed to Los Angeles’ commitment to clean energy – embracing innovations to achieve more sustainable behaviours – and the need to align all transport investments with the net-zero commitments outlined by the city’s commitment to climate action, as spelled out in Los Angeles’ Green New Deal.
Furthermore, sustainability needs to be thought of as a holistic and umbrella term encompassing the effects of UAM on the natural environment, as well as the people, animals and plants that depend on it. It would be short-sighted to focus exclusively on the vehicles’ emissions and energy consumption without also considering supporting infrastructure for sustainable practices.
To achieve climate action and environmental protection goals, all-electric solutions are preferable to those that rely on internal combustion engines for vehicle propulsion. A period of transition to refine all-electric vehicle designs can be considered if mobility and public benefits outweigh negative externalities when compared to other transport options. One barrier to widespread adoption of all-electric transport is the need for significant local and regional clean-tech infrastructure investments. For the city, understanding and pursuing investments in power grid capacity enhancements and other critical improvements should be prioritized to provide the clean energy necessary for integrating all-electric transport modes.
Equity of access
The next generation of aerial transport in cities should aim to provide equitable access to mobility for disadvantaged communities and businesses with the greatest need for enhanced mobility and the positive economic benefits of UAM. Designing a new transport mode that is accessible in a fair and equitable manner in multiple dimensions will ensure its public acceptance and longevity, and therefore should take place early to avoid disproportionate negative impacts to certain communities. Equitable access should be factored into business plans as criteria for design and as a factor of success.
Affordability in the long term is an important part of eliminating or mitigating financial barriers to using UAM. Although private stakeholders reiterated that urban aerial mobility will likely operate as a premium priced service at the outset, providers should be able to outline a longer-term plan for affordable consumer pricing. Any new form of transport aiming to integrate into a city’s multimodal transport network can only be relevant by offering efficient travel times, inclusive pricing schemes and dignified customer experience.
Societal acceptance – the factor that limits any emerging technology to the margins if not achieved – will only be fostered if the trade-offs to individuals are a net benefit. Needs-based user subsidies, low-cost medical emergency transport or other investments to equitably distribute the benefits of low-altitude aviation should be considered to ensure this new mode can deliver the greatest public good and may act as a catalyst in ensuring support.
Other dimensions of equitable access may include universally accessible system designs that fully accommodate users with unique abilities, such as sight, hearing or physical mobility impairments. System designers should also consider how people of different genders, ages, cultural backgrounds and lived experiences may interact with the systems.
Though a low-cost service for most users in the short-term may not be possible, providing a road map to affordability that considers a three-phased model (crawl, walk, run phases) for development and implementation over the next decade will demonstrate industry actors’ commitment to this principle. Proposals that demonstrate a realistic approach to achieving affordability and equitable access should be prioritized and considered for partnerships by the city. Flexibility based on demand or enabling use cases that provide value to the city stakeholders, beyond simple movement of goods and passengers in nominal times, should be considered.
Noise disturbances should be measured and mitigated by a community first approach to vehicle design, infrastructure siting and route planning. Community noise acceptance metrics should be co-created with stakeholders, including city planners, community associations, vehicle manufacturers, service providers and others. Industry partners and government leaders understand that noise disturbances can challenge the expansion of any transport system. These complaints are not unwarranted, as significant study has been done to quantify the impacts of noise (defined as unwanted sound) on the cognition, well-being and performance of individuals across ages, activities and more, as well as the integrity of natural environments.
Proposed service and vehicle designs must consider adverse impacts on surrounding communities from the beginning. Decision-makers tasked with use designation, zoning and entitling development of private properties must be well informed prior to permitting facilities for flight operations.
New transit modes should connect with existing forms of transport and mobility hubs to offer a seamless customer experience and allow for secure, integrated operations. Where possible, UAM should connect to existing, high-quality transport options (public and/or private), offering seamless travel from the air to destinations in populous built environments. City builders and travellers alike expect urban multimodal transport networks to provide a user-friendly customer experience.
By designing low-altitude urban aviation systems to take advantage of, act as a force multiplier for, and leverage existing groundside transport networks, the value proposition of this new mobility option is more attractive. For example one interest would be to reduce the overall use of single occupancy vehicles for regional or medium-distance trips. If, instead, urban air mobility nodes are planned to replace transport options with higher throughput and fewer negative externalities to provide an exclusive, frictionless option for high socio-economic class travellers, the promise of this new technology will not be realized.
Local workforce development
UAM should create employment opportunities for the residents of cities and the surrounding regions in which there are operations. Unlike other technological developments being considered for the next decade, UAM is expected to increase jobs on the ground and in the air. One new employment opportunity in commercial aviation operations generates multiple jobs in manufacturing, maintenance, flight approval or other related positions down the line.
The introduction of various UAM curriculum to universities, colleges and vocational schools at early stages will serve as a tremendous value add to the ecosystem. With an aim to become global transport technology leaders, industry partners should partner with city management and together engage labour representatives, education and training experts, and community-based organizations to craft a next generation aviation workforce development strategy.
Purpose-driven data sharing
Data sharing that enables all authorized stakeholders to quickly respond to the needs of passengers, communities and market demands is fundamentally important to the success of UAM. Data availability can allow for dynamic urban airspace usage and the operation of supportive infrastructure, like vertiports, in a more connected and efficient way. Cities and other stakeholders seeking enhanced access to data and information should clearly articulate their need for specific data and information and prioritize the protection of individuals’ privacy.
Just as the streets of a city are designed, operated, maintained and managed by city officials, local decision-makers will continue to champion clear and transparent decision-making and design capabilities for UAM, including as they relate to the collection of data generated by individuals using this new mode. Cities should consider building internal capacity and promoting awareness of the urban air mobility industry in anticipation of aviation expansion in the urban environment, today, and especially in anticipation of purpose-driven data sharing.