Bjorn’s Corner: Airbus about Urban Air Mobility: Stop dreaming, Start making

By Bjorn Fehrm

May 24, 2019, ©. Leeham News: “Stop dreaming, Start making” was the angle of Airbus responsible for Urban Air Mobility (UAM), Eduardo Dominguez Puerta, presenting during Airbus Innovation days in Toulouse this week.

He also said, over 90% of the present UAM projects will not make it into a certified operational platform. Here’s why.

Figure 1. The motivation for Urban Air Mobility is strong. Source: Airbus.

The motivation is there, but not the rules

Puerta said the motivation for Urban Air Mobility is there, Figure 1. It will start off as a service for the wealthy, then migrate to the masses. This is how most new ways of transportation have progressed.

While there will be a lot of skills needed to achieve a functioning eco-system, Figure 3, having all the function blocks in place for a viable Urban Air Mobility system is not the main hurdle for the projects.

Figure 3. The necessary components for a functioning Urban Air Mobility ecosystem. Source: Airbus.

Certification is.

Urban Air Mobility is about transporting people over the heads of other people. It will only be allowed with absolute safety. And certifying a vehicle to this absolute safety requires the certification rules which stipulates what must be achieved. For the propulsion system. For the navigation system. For the automated flight.

But these regulations do not exist. In fact, they are not even in the making. First discussions have started, but not more.

Airbus has two flying UAMs, the Vahana (Silicon Valley, Figure 4) and CityAirbus (Airbus Helicopter at Donauworth Germany, Figure 5).

Figure 4. The Vahana demonstrator. Source: Airbus.

Figure 5. The CityAirbus demonstrator. Source: Airbus.

Neither of these will make it to a certified vehicle says Puerta. As there are no certification rules, they couldn’t be designed to be certifiable. They are demonstrators, as are all the other Urban Air Mobility vehicles. And this is what will kill most projects.

When investor learns their spent money has not brought them close to a practical system, and this requires a long wait for rules, followed by design, production and certification of a different vehicle, they will stop. Only a few projects will make it through to certification when the rules will finally be there, says Puerta.

Certification rules are the work ahead, not further vehicles

Puerta said Airbus will not invest in further vehicle projects until certification rules are there. And to get these rules requires Airbus to engage with its competitors to help authorities create these rules.

This is now the top priority, not further flying vehicles, as they don’t bring Airbus closer to the goal, a functioning Urban Air Mobility system.

25 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: Airbus about Urban Air Mobility: Stop dreaming, Start making

  1. I don’t know any significant or seasoned investor who would have failed to factor certifiability in during due diligence. The more important investment goal would have been the IP and the people, recognising that they are either the end product in themselves or the experience (people) and knowledge (IP) required to take part in defining the rules to allow certifiability. Near term there may also be factored a payoff for other drone capability.

  2. We have the EASA CS-27 Small Rotorcraft certification rules that can be a good start for making the rules for battery powered short range 4-5 pax city quadcopters and in the future autonomous versions without pilot on board but in a Control center. It requires skyports around the cities with remote Tower automation, most likely FMS preprogrammed routes between the Airport and these skyports using the TCAS II successor & ADB-S in/out to handle traffic and other disruptions. Lots of Collins/Honeywell/Thales boxes in these elecrical whisks in addition to rain&ice protection systems, redundant probes and satellite communication. 93% of its Selling price will be Electronics (including batteries, cooling fans and chargers). As soon as Honeywell/Collings/Thales needs more Money they will issue new software for their boxes that you have to upgrade and pay for hopefully solving more problems than the upgrade create.

  3. How much energy will be needed for a feasible operation? Change batteries at every stop?

    This has been going on for 2 decades. The bigger public / press lovs it though, just like flying cars, space travel & house keeping robots.

  4. I like Los Angeles, but my gosh the number of helicopters clattering over and around the basin 24 hours/day is incredibly annoying. Noise pollution, disturbance of rest, visual pollution of the sky: all very damaging to human life. Yet that is a small fraction of the number that would take to the skies under current “urban air mobility”, aka drone life, proposals. Does anything think this will really happen before the backlash from citizens gets so strong that civilian helicopters are banned from urban skies altogether?

  5. Dumb money and its profiteers will not be stopped, until the futility becomes glaringly obvious.

  6. Maybe Elon Musk has a better idea with his Boring Company and/or Hyperloop.

    Putting higher speed dedicated transit options underground seems to be a much easier solution than operating in such a complex place as the skies over a dense city. It also seems to solve all the environmental considerations.

    Perhaps Boeing is the company to get into it. It has free cash flow that it can’t find a better use for than to give it back to the shareholders, and absent a tectonic shift in technology, making aircraft is becoming all about production and not about the underlying technology – meaning that Chinese and perhaps Russian meaningful competition is only a matter of time.

    • Hyperloop has a similar problem of who will write the rules and certify it. No military use that can start it under military certification that FAA or similar agency can inherit add some rules and cost and then becomeing law for us civilans to follow.
      Just like the FAA can use the NASA rules when they certify commercial rockets, the EPA will soon follow with emission rules.

  7. Speak about Sao Paulo but show a picture of flying over Hong Kong.

    Good tactic, throw them off like that and when they’re discombobulated that’s when you swoop in and get them to sign.

    • It was I who cut and pasted Sao Paulo and Hongkong. I liked the headline on the Sao Paulo image but the picture on the second, so blame me, not Airbus.

      • Not to mention, Sao Paulo is bloody dangerous to drive through- the rich use helicopters to avoid getting murdered. This is about getting rich people from point a to b over the heads of the poor.

        The woman in the photo does not look as though she’d spend much time in the favelas…

  8. what about emergency in case of power loss or single motor damage? fixed wing aircraft and helicopters has at least some chance to make emergency landing. This thing will fall of the sky unless one straps on parachutes for cabin. And for electric drone every gram matters.

    • The reason why a lot of these concept vehicles are massively multi engine. Then, reliability of e-motors is magnitudes higher than the required smallish IC engines.

  9. I see the biggest challenge not in certifying the aircraft but in devising economically viable ground infrastructure, specifically licensing the landing pads. Whizzy automation is very hard to apply to RFFS. I don’t see what justification an authority could find to allow widespread CAT into non licensed landing zones.

    UAM losses a lot of its utility when it ends up being restricted to airports and formal helipads.

  10. We need this why?

    Flying cars by any other name and always 20 years off – you can do it, whats the point.

    Ride your electric bicycle to the rally point.

    Like aerial delivery, we need it why?

  11. Beyond the cert rules what about societal approval? I do not believe acceptance from inhabitants regarding ground infrastructure, noise, safety risk….

  12. We might see a cross between quadcopters and sailplanes. The latest sailplanes are extremely efficient and can almost travel straight ahead as most of the time the thermals are enough to keep it at altitude. With +40 L/D design and a few lift fans in its wings it can transition to gliding pretty fast and just run the engines now and then (unless in snowstorm and headwinds but then the ATC computers would not let it take-off..)

      • Yes, you are right its better range compared to traditional quadcopters is due to a better CL/CD, they don’t show a number. They might set the pattern for designs to follow that is cheaper (Like the VW v/s a Porsche). The rules for automated flight and noise will probably come in some years approving no pilot o board and pre-programmed flight paths only between skyports.

  13. People automatically seem to assume that eVTOL, PAV, UAM, Flying Cars etc, call them what you will, must be for everyone all the time. That somehow these machines need to replace cars, and that they need to have utility for every journey. Critics and journalists routinely assume this as the default. Ok sure, the economics of business and mass market appeal may lead to this assumption and many promoters push it for various reasons, but please recognise that it need not be so. We are definitely witnessing a transformative technological development with the prospect of radically changing airspace utilisation for many applications, but it need not be viewed as a new ubiquitous transport system which everyone must or will use. The air transport system we are familiar with has evolved and must continue to do so. Perhaps not uniformly or steadily, perhaps it is time for what may seem like step changes, perhaps it is uncomfortable.

    It is odd that there is an assumed higher standard of safety required than for legacy transport systems. In this article the term ‘absolute safety’ is used. I will make the assumption that this is an error in translation or quotation because there is definitely no such thing as absolute safety and it would be absurd to demand it. We do things according to a consensus standard for acceptable risk. This is not constant or ubiquitous for all applications either, the acceptable risk varies according to many factors which need to be considered carefully and rationally before any critique can make sense.

    I will predict that these new aircraft types will find application just as evolutionary new aircraft types always have. As ever, there will be success and failure. There will be places and times for use along with places and times not suitable. It is a big world and most airspace is empty most of the time. There are many challenges, and I would say the most pressing are non-technical, we can easily see the technical viability and economic demand, otherwise there would be scarcely any debate or controversy. It is our ideology or belief structure which is most under challenge. It has been a long time since we have faced a technological change like this, one which affects us physically so clearly and personally. Is it in living memory, the first railway, first automobile, first airliner, first jetliner? Over the past few decades there have been vast changes in our technological paradigm, particularly in communications, data acquisition, processing and storage etc. Occurring still, have you heard of Facebook? These have had a profound effect, carrying huge risks as well as rewards for individuals and society at large, yet almost without any of the sort of prior debate and discussion as we are having now about this transport machinery. It is fascinating to watch and be a part of, it will be quite a shock of course, that first flight. Much more so I expect than sending or receiving that first email, or digital photograph etc. Remember that? ‘The Shock of the New’, post-modernist flight, coming to you.

    • Well that is all a lot of fluffy spin, is there a point?

      And yes I do remember the first Jet Aircraft. That was a vast improvement over the prop jobs in all ways that counted.

      So basically what you are saying they can come in and condemn my house for a landing pad to a bunch of rich people can hop in?

      We know its not their house that gets torn down.

      And yes there is precedent. It was ruled valid to tear houses down to build a Hotel complex that the city could tax.

      And cars don’t put whole sections of a city at risk do they?

      As for Facebook et all, they are nothing more than social diseases that do nothing positive.

  14. “It will start off as a service for the wealthy, then migrate to the masses. This is how most new ways of transportation have progressed.”

    That’s not how it happened for helicopters, these vehicles’ closest analogy. They started off as a service to the military, then migrated to the wealthy (with whom they remain).

    Think what these autonomous vehicles could do for the military – re-supply, reconnaissance, fire support, targeting, diversion, early warning, casevac, search & rescue and on and on.

    The military will come up with some certification rules and the civil world will be able to piggy back in due course.

    Probably an opportunity principally for American business since the US is the biggest military spender, leads the world in aviation certification (even with the current issues) and has the most rich people at hand to provide a market.

  15. Interesting discussion and point of views. New technologies come as the solution for everything and then they will set at a middle point in between how the world was and how it is now. If this turn on to a mass transportation, which I dont think it will go, the picture it is not the one presented, but one where the traffic jam will go from ground level to the skies above us. And it is mention to note that whatever is developed it will be developed, built, operated, maintained and controlled by human, so errors will only go from one point to another.

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