Electric Air Taxi Pilot Studies Undertaken in Europe for Urban Mobility
Urban Air Mobility (UAM) is a game-changing new technology, especially if real-time demand-supply connections are made between operators and customers using information-enabled platforms such as ride-hailing apps like those used by Lyft and Uber. Never before has the possibility of extensive aerial operations over urban areas been as real, as demonstrated by the fact that over 1,000 full-size Electric Vertical Take-off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft underwent test flights in 2019 and that, as of March 2020, at least 12 eVTOL aircraft were undergoing US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification procedures.
UAM research has largely been influenced by the aerospace industry up to this point and has concentrated on aircraft technology and operations, including the integration of Urban Air Mobility with the National Airspace System (NAS). UAM will need to successfully integrate with current city infrastructure in ways that are acceptable to the local communities while offering service levels that provide time savings over current modes at a price that people are willing to pay in order to be successful.
At present, the trend of Urban Air Mobility is towards an initial focus on air taxis. Manufacturers are specialising, in roughly equal parts, in the production of three different types of UAM:
1.) City taxis with a range of 15 to 50 kilometres that cover inner-city needs,
2.) Airport shuttles with the same range that will bring travellers to airports, and
3.) Intercity jets, capable of covering distances of up to 250 kilometers, will provide transport between major cities. According to some sources, by 2050, airport shuttle and intercity services, together, will take the majority of the market share and account for approximately 90% of revenues.
Recent Pilot Studies of UAM in Europe
UK eVTOL infrastructure developer Urban-Air Port has opened the world’s first demonstration of a hub for flying taxis and autonomous cargo drones in Coventry, UK. Air-One will operate from its location at Westminster Car Park in the centre of Coventry, UK, with support from the UK government and additional assistance from air mobility expert Supernal. Urban-Air Port claims that the project will serve as a template for constructing more than 200 vertiports globally over the next five years.
According to Urban-Air Port, the Air-One vertiport will be a showcase for aviation’s future, demonstrating how specially designed ground infrastructure for eVTOL can unleash Urban Air Mobility potential to decarbonize transportation, lower air pollution, and ease traffic. Moreover, local police forces and drone manufacturer Skyfarer will be among the first organizations to fly from the location. The former is intended to show how vertiports can be used for ‘sky protection,’ while the latter is meant to highlight the possibilities of handling air taxis and the delivery of valuable cargo.
Advancing UAM Taxi Integration and U-Space Services in Europe
Eurocontrol leads the U-ELCOME project (unmanned UAM taxis), which Enaire coordinates, assuming eight locations in Spain, five in Italy, and four in France. The European COMmon dEpLoyment (U-ELCOME) project has a budget of 14 million euros and utilises one of SESAR 3 JU’s flagship Digital Sky Demonstrators. It is also supported by the European Commission’s Connecting Europe Facility. U-ELCOME is a 3-year project running until October 2025 co-ordinated by the Eurocontrol Innovation Hub involving 51 partners.
Uspace4UAM demonstrations at the ATLAS Centre in Villacarrillo, Jaén involved both drones and Urban Air Mobility vehicles. They covered different use cases, including mixed operations, so that the project could collect results that were applicable across Europe. The goal was to increase social acceptance by users to allow U-Space and the autonomy of these aircrafts to develop sufficiently to show that their onboard systems are suitable for U-Space services and can provide the required safety levels. ENAIRE and the other Uspace4UAM members demonstrated the benefits of using a U-Space platform and their associated services to manage remotely piloted aircraft and air taxi operations at the ATLAS Centre in Villacarrillo.
Advancing Urban Air Mobility in Europe and the UK
China-based EHang will use its EH216 autonomous aerial vehicle in a project supported by the European Union. This project examines the potential of using the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) for eVTOL aircraft operations. As part of the Satellite Based Augmentation System Adoption in Multicopter VTOL Aircraft (SAMVA) program, flight trials at Lleida-Alguaire Airport in Spain will use the fully autonomous all-electric vehicle.The European Union Agency for Space Programme (EUSPA) is carrying out this initiative as part of the SAMVA project, which specifically tasks itself with determining how EGNOS could support eVTOL air taxi flights.
By 2024, the consortium, as announced at the Farnborough Air Show in mid-2022, could initiate tests for a flying taxi service that connects UK airports and city centers. Moreover, by utilizing a four-passenger (excluding the pilot) eVTOL aircraft developed by consortium partner Vertical Aerospace and the services provided by Virgin Atlantic, the group intends to start testing connections between London City, Heathrow, and Bristol airports. Notably, the Advanced Mobility Ecosystem Consortium, consisting of Vertical, Virgin, the UK’s air traffic control provider NATS, aerospace design firm Atkins, and several others, recently won the £9.5 million Future Flight Challenge award from the government. Their objective is to significantly accelerate the adoption of advanced air mobility in the UK, becoming the country’s first advanced air mobility ecosystem developer.
Advancements in Urban Air Mobility Testing
UMILES Next’s Concept Integrity air taxi equipped with TECNALIA’s FlyFree technology has completed successful test flights in Toulouse, France taking off from the Onera test field. This is part of the Tactical Instrumental Deconfliction, and In-flight Resolution (TindAIR) project designed for large-scale demonstrations of Urban Air Mobility innovations. This event aimed to validate urban air traffic management systems of the future with unmanned aircraft and represented a significant step toward the integration of such aircraft into the airspace. Furthermore, it underscored the importance of modernizing and adapting air traffic management for the evolving landscape of aerial transportation. In this demonstration, other Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) flew alongside the air taxi to show that these traffic elements could successfully coexist in urban areas in the near future. UMILES Next demonstrated automatic flight control and autonomous take-off and landing on its eVTOL aircraft at the event.
The Future of UAM Taxis in Europe
According to projections, the global Urban Air Mobility market will increase from US$2.6 billion in 2020 to US$9.1 billion in 2030. Industry investment soared in 2021 with US$4.7 billion announced for the development of eVTOL vehicles. Recent technological developments and the demand for more accessible, quick, and environmentally friendly transportation are driving forward this trend. However, while there is obviously a burgeoning market for UAM taxis, many unknowns are associated with integrating Urban Air Mobility taxis within the traditional aerospace field. While the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has drafted guidelines that could allow heavier eVTOL aircraft to take to the skies over Europe in the coming years, many other civil aviation authorities throughout Europe have their own set of requirements and standards that must integrate to make the UAM space safe, reliable, and efficient.