During Amsterdam Drone Week, the excitement was building when I saw the regional Urban Air Mobility (UAM) sessions listed throughout the agenda. Updates on the status of UAM across many global regions should prove to be a vision into the future.
The Middle East update was the first session I joined with representatives from Volocopter, Atkins, Goren Holding and the GCAA. Off to a good start with this region as it appears to be leader in working toward deployment of UAM infrastructure. The UAE has seen about a 60% increase in drone traffic over the last year. The view is that we need to mirror what we do with airlines for UAM – ie experts need to design the routes for this traffic with corridors and airspace blocks. The ANSP role will grow with UTM in the region with the expectation that uncontrolled airspace will have automated flight management, especially for enterprise specific drone activities like inspection. If we consider the development of safety practices in today’s world of aviation they came from a ‘combination of experience and blood’. The latter referring to accidents that the industry learned from and incorporated into future planning and development.
Atkins also discussed the UAE from the perspective of vertiports. Saudi Arabia has high expectations to innovate its airspace management and tourism with UAM. Oman also has UAM plans and Qatar already simulated UAM during the World Cup.
Europe was the next regional panel with participants from Aerospace Valley, EIT Urban Mobility, UECNA/ADERA, European Passengers Federation and Capgemini Aerospace. As you can see by the list of companies, this panel didn’t have industry representatives, but those from associations and governments. Unfortunately, the story here wasn’t as positive an outlook and more focused on the challenges ahead. Starting with noise and pollution in cities. The concerns increased by incorporating the wildlife impact, security and privacy of drones overhead and the general public fearing for their safety due to potential accidents.
Next up were concerns about the target audience for UAM. Is it only a toy for the rich or does it also pertain to normal citizens? How does someone with reduced mobility take advantage of UAM? There were some suggestions as to how to reduce the fear of a new technology such as this by the general population through co-creation workshops, hackathons and a shift from promoting the technology to a ‘what’s in it for me’ discussion.
And lastly the speed and varying direction of regulation across European countries was raised as something that needs to be aligned not only for traffic management and standards, but also for citizen privacy and security. Sounds like there's a lot of work to be done here.
Expecting a case study of exciting UAM developments in California, I attended this panel. Unfortunately this was yet another panel highlighting challenges with representatives from NATCA, Community Air Mobility Initiatives (CAMI) and the San Jose Department of Transportation. This panel seemed to follow the path of the aforementioned one looking at all of the challenges and reasons why there is no business case currently for UAM. Again citing the possibility of this only being for the rich and not making enough of an impact on the wider population. Cities don’t have the capacity or knowledge to spend time on something without a wider impact. More specifically “if only 1,000 people per day would be transported, they don’t care.”
On the flipside a very interesting analogy was proposed. When mobile phones initially became available they were a new way to make a phone call. Today a phone call is one of the last things people do with their mobile phones. So maybe UAM follows this path and it needs to find its way with new innovation and business models along the way. Something to really think about!
Lastly, I joined a panel looking at advanced air mobility or AAM in Canada and the US with NASA, Wisk, Supernal and Air Canada. It was good to see some initial plans for cross industry use of drones and AAM. Air Canada is already involved in drone delivery and plans to use them for their own logistics purposes in the future. Supernal sees opportunities coming from the large growth in cities to reduce congestion with a positive environmental impact and enable more job opportunities for suburban and rural citizens with reduced commutes. Wisk discussed the need for this to be a reality, the cost of a flight needs to align with the cost of an Uber. A good objective and one I’ve heard from other eVTOL discussions, but I would expect this won’t be the case early in deployment.
Although these are highlights across a few regions and discussions, my key takeaways are:
- EDUCATION: there needs to be a lot of work done to educate businesses and the general public about the potential for positive impact from these technologies,
- Sell the business impact, not the technology or risk being another cool technology without a market,
- Align your terminology. I heard Innovative Air Mobility, Urban Air Mobility and Advanced Air Mobility. This is confusing enough inside the industry, imagine if you’re an average person trying to figure out what this means.