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RAeS – Looking at the bigger picture

Home Articles RAeS – Looking at the bigger picture

RAeS – Looking at the bigger picture

IFA Comment: Wise reflection.  Safety of flight, in that the airworthiness of AAM is of paramount importance, it is only part of the overall picture. The article rightly points to the challenges that are ahead.

By Bill Read FRAeS  18 March 2022

With the technical development of advanced air mobility eVTOL vehicles now well advanced, attention is now turning to the wider infrastructure in which they will operate. BILL READFRAeS highlights some of the key issues discussed at the third Global Urban & Advanced Air Summit (GUAAS) at Farnborough.

On 2-3 March, the Farnborough International Exhibition & Conference Centre hosted the third meeting of the Global Urban & Advanced Air Summit (GUAAS) in which UAM manufacturers met with regulators, government, investors and infrastructure providers to share knowledge and discuss plans for the implementation of the aerial transport systems of the future.

Although advanced air mobility (AAM) technology is maturing fast with several prototype vehicles now being flight tested, speakers at this month’s GUAAS conference agreed that there are still many challenges to overcome before AAM networks can be created to offer alternative transport systems across or between cities.

Eve Air Mobility AAM design pictured over Singapore. (Eve)

Despite the restrictions caused by Covid-19, the past two years have seen huge investments into AAM projects with manufacturers making great strides in the development of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) platforms with a number of prototypes now being flight tested. The focus is now moving towards manufacturers working with regulators on flight safety certification and forming plans for mass production and operation. Passenger-carrying versions of AAMs may need to carry additional systems, including avionics, transponders, navigation systems, AI systems and even flight recorders. Depending where they operate, some AAMs may also need additional hot/cold weather equipment, such as de-icing systems or air conditioning.

GUAAS panel discussion. (Bill Read/RAeS)

Much of the discussion at GUAAS was not about new eVTOL platforms but the wider ‘ecosystem’ which will be needed for them to operate in. No AAM will be able to fly until it has somewhere to take-off and to land. A number of companies are working on designs for vertiports, some next to airports, some on the top of high buildings and some built in new locations. Careful planning is needed to ensure that AAMs can safely operate in and out of these new locations and that they are designed to operate efficiently and are financially viable.

Airbus is one of several companies looking into AAM air traffic management. (Airbus)

Additional research is also needed to study the unique flying environment posed by city infrastructure and how AAMs will navigate through a crowded lower airspace and cope with adverse atmospheric conditions such as urban canyon cross winds and invisible vortices. AAMs, particularly those that operate autonomously, will also need to be resilient against cyberattacks and jamming devices. They must also be designed to avoid the risk of signal blackouts due to high buildings blocking GNSS global navigation satellite system line-of-sight communications and the risk of overlapping communications spectrum at lower altitudes.

The question was also discussed of who should be responsible for the low level airspace in which the AAMs should operate – the national air navigation service provider, local government or a private air traffic management company.

On the subject of safety, there is a risk that AAMs may have accidents. The aim of manufacturers and regulators will be to reduce this risk to an acceptable level.

Many of the practices already used in the air transport industry could also be applied to AAMs – such as predictive maintenance, MRO services, battery management and ground handling operations. Digital technology is expected to take a lead role in this in both aircraft design and operations.

Speakers were agreed that the first AAMs are likely to have to be piloted until such time as regulators are convinced of their safety and remote piloted, autonomous or multiple platform swarming systems reach sufficient technological maturity to replace them.

Training will be need both for pilots and remote pilots and a couple of manufacturers are now looking at AAM flight training simulators.

Proposal for a Thames-side AAM terminal. (Skybus)

Another issue is that, for AAM transport systems to succeed, there is a need not just for public acceptance but proactive enthusiasm. AAM developers will have to reassure the public that eVTOLs are safe, quiet and of benefit to the community. Among the ways that were suggested to encourage public demand for AAMs could include pilot projects using emergency service vehicles or capturing imagination through eVTOL sport races.

AAM development can only succeed if all interested parties (manufacturers, regulators, investors and local government) all work together will the public to prove that AAMs will be a benefit to the community.

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