Current and Future of Urban Air Mobility Solutions
The evolving trends in the technology industry are suggesting a paradigm shift towards smart cognitive cities. While the integration of technologies in the infrastructure solves some of the crucial challenges, another vital factor that needs to be addressed at the soonest is traffic congestion. Due to increased population and vehicles, many citizens face the difficulty of commutation as heavy congestion causes several problems in day-to-day lives and emergencies. To address these challenges, automotive, aerospace, and tech giants are researching the possibility of urban air mobility (UAM) solutions.
For many years, it would be unimaginable if someone mentioned about flying cars in the future. On the contrary, the urban air mobility platform is rapidly developing and is expected to grow from $2.6 billion in 2020 to $9.1 billion by 2030. Air mobility provides better linking of people, cities, and regions with a safer and sustainable approach towards improved urban transportation.
Urban Air Mobility is Becoming a Reality
With increased travel time and the limitation of public transportation in terms of the areas they can go, some of the concerns have led to people wanting to reach their destinations faster in an urban setup. As people are unwilling to spend more time in transit, a multimodal transportation system comprising of air mobility could add another dimension to the mode of transportation. Besides the increasing concerns about pollution and environmental risks, there are several industries that stand to benefit from UAMs. Some of these industries are transportation and logistics and a possibility to extend towards doorstep delivery of medical supplies and food delivery. Most of these industries are experiencing high costs for maintenance of fleet and vehicle maintenance, including additional during transit and risk of damage or spoilage.
In the past decades, technology and passenger-based drones have been rapidly evolving. The prototypes of these vehicles have been undergoing several changes since the 1980s. The majority of the prototypes were designed with adding the capability of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL). While VTOL aircraft share the resemblance of a traditional helicopter, they are highly energy efficient. Similarly, the current innovation focuses on electric or hybrid designs alongside VTOL capabilities, thus the name electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL). These intelligent passenger drones can accommodate 5-7 passengers with maximum cruise speed and range of up to 300 km/h. Several categories are formed under the broad group of urban air mobility solutions, each offering distinct characteristics and uses.
The cargo packages to be delivered should be less than 5lbs with the option of local distribution between dedicated hubs. The deliveries are unscheduled, and the routes are planned once the orders are placed.
Air metro is a concept of incorporating UAMs to address current public transportation challenges like pre-determined routes or fixed schedules and long stoppage times. Vehicles for air metro can accomodate2 to 5 passengers in a single trip and an average load capacity of 3 passengers for each trip.
The air taxi is built with VTOL capabilities and allows for ride-sharing and door-to-door offerings that allow consumers to call for vertical take-off and landing at their desired location and specify rooftop drop zones in the city. These air rides have no schedule and are available on demand.
A passenger-based UAM is an electric-powered quadcopter with rotators. Besides, these vehicles can carry people between established destination points. The vehicles have manual piloting and remote piloting features alongside fully autonomous capabilities. Although, manual piloting requires the pilots to be licensed personnel. Passenger drones can cover distances up to 104 km.
Upcoming UAM jets being experimented with are designed to accommodate up to 7 passengers with ample seating space to enrich the cabin experience. These teams can cover more distance with higher speeds.
Air ambulance is another significant addition to the ongoing developments of UAM. The project is meant to provide aerial support for passengers for transportation to nearing medical facility—the primary reason being an improvement in the delivery of emergency services such as paramedics or ambulance services. A project named Ambular is focused on building an eVTOL to fly a person in a medical emergency to be transferred to a local hospital facility in a much faster and convenient way. Although it is unknown whether it will become a commercial project, but significant progress has been witnessed in developing an air ambulance quadcopter.
Leveraging the Sky with UAM
UAM innovations have evolved with the rising urban challenges of mobility, increased transfer cost, existing logistics challenges, and environmental factors. UAMs are personalized air vehicles powered by electrical energy with electrical vertical take-off and landing capability without any runway. These vehicles use multiple rotors to reduce noise with their rotational speed and significantly high system redundancy. The current generation of UAM has seen the development of volocopter as the standard form of air mobility aircraft. Lilium developed first of its kind electric vertical take-off and landing jet in 2015. The project is built and tested over four generations of prototypes, and they are working on a 7-seater aircraft to achieve sustainable and accessible solutions for high-speed transportation. The company plans to launch its offering by 2024.
Other significant players who are involved in UAM solutions are Hyundai Motors, with UAM and a hub. They have collaborated with Uber for their air vehicles. The hub is the next-generation version of mobility space for connecting UAM.
Airbus is another major player in this industry that has developed a CityAirbus, an electric, four-seater, and multicopter vehicle. They offer advance remote piloting features with eVTOL features present for take-off and landing purposes. The company has reported that its first full-scale demonstrator take-off was conducted in 2019. This vehicle has a cruise speed of approximately 120 km/h on specific routes, whereas a fully automated piloting feature of about 15 minutes. Additionally, it has a four-passenger seating provision and a failure tolerant architecture for added safety.
Existing UAM Implementations
The last mile delivery concept has been taken up as pilot projects for testing some of the UAM solutions. Companies like X have come up with the Wing project, an autonomous drone-based delivery service targeted at increasing the accessibility to goods and contributing towards reduced traffic congestion in cities and reduced CO2 emissions. They also develop a traffic management platform looking to navigate different drones or manned aircraft and any other physical obstacles like trees and buildings.
Amazon’s Prime Air aims to achieve a fully autonomous delivery system that can safely deliver packages within 30 minutes using unmanned aerial vehicles. The testing phase has begun in the UK.
Zipline is redefining the supply chain with blood and medical supplies delivered through aerial vehicles to hospitals and medical facilities. On the other hand, DHL has entered the last mile delivery with autonomous food delivery solutions in Germany. Whereas Domino’s has become the first food chain to deliver pizza by a drone. The experimentation has been conducted in New Zealand.
A Key Component in the Future
The rise of urbanism has led to people opting for urban lifestyles, which has led to an increasing population worldwide. Therefore, the growing concerns of carbon emissions from vehicles and traffic congestion have always been debated. Today, businesses or people do not prefer the longer transit times, which causes time loss and financial losses. Such growing concerns have led to the advent of advanced technologies such as drones. This technology has tremendous potential, and it is evident due to its contribution to several industries.
Thus, addressing the most challenging issues like traffic congestion and efficient travel looked upon advanced drone mechanisms to build urban air mobility solutions. Although several testing phases are required, it also requires strict guidelines and regulations and certifications for piloting these vehicles. Pioneers worldwide are optimistic about the success of urban air mobility solutions and contributing towards a futuristic solution that can provide an efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly solution as the world transitions into the era of intelligent and sustainable city life.
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