Bjorn’s Corner: Sustainable Air Transport. Part 47. eVTOL traffic

By Bjorn Fehrm

November 25, 2022, ©. Leeham News: We have gone through the flight principles for different eVTOLs, the critical systems such as battery systems and flight controls, their energy consumption/performance, and how green they are compared to other ways of getting to an airport.

This is all about the flying vehicle. But it’s only part of the system needed for this transport system to work and be safe. We now discuss the other bits needed.

Figure 1. The JFK, Newark, and Manhattan airspace. Click for a detailed view. Source: Foreflight.

eVTOLs and traffic management

To enable the eVTOL business models, the OEMs prescribe 20 to 30 20-minute flights per eVTOL and day (each flight transport an average of 2.3 passengers). It means we increase the present helicopter movements around a city or an airport by a factor of five to 10 per day. While this might be possible from an air vehicle viewpoint, is it possible from an air traffic control point of view?

Figure 1 shows the airspace around JFK and Newark airport and Manhattan with its two heliports (red circles in the middle). Airspace in the inner airport circles goes from ground to 7,000ft. One step out at Newark and the south part of the JFK circle, you have 500ft to 7,000ft and then 1,500ft to 7000ft for the outer circles/space.

It means a helicopter/eVTOL from the Manhattan heliports flies in controlled airspace (class B) virtually all the time if going to the airports. It also means Air Traffic Control (ATC) is responsible for the separation and safe flights.

The present traffic level is around 30 to 50 flights a day from the two red circle Manhattan heliports going to the greater New York area. When eVTOL air transport flies Manhattan to JFK and Newark, this increases by a factor of five to 10 or more.

Air Traffic Control today handles this traffic with voice communication along approved helicopter routes. With factors five to 10 or more, this no longer works.

The media is full of articles about what is required to support such a traffic increase inside controlled airspace. But there is an absence of viable solutions or even the parts of such solutions.

Air Traffic Control is a slow mover

Air Traffic Control has been the slowest-moving part of air transport for decades. There is a multitude of reasons for this. Each change must be trailed and verified with a multitude of flights not to jeopardize safety. And sometimes, the human factor doesn’t play along with changes that increase the control of automation and decrease the involvement of humans. There are job reasons for this but also issues about who’s responsible if things go pear-shaped.

Suffice to say, air traffic control has changed very little since I passed my civil air traffic pilot certifications 40 years ago (military pilots don’t learn to fly under civil rules, at least not then).

Now the eVTOL players assume there will be a revolution in air traffic control in two to five years!

Let’s realize air traffic control has more pressing problems than throwing all change programs for regular air traffic like FAA NextGen and EASA SESAR overboard and fixing the Drone and eVTOL problem.

I write Drone as the path is to fix the drone air traffic control first, and then it will migrate to be part of the eVTOL solution. This summer, we got a high-level text from EASA (which is ahead of the FAA) on the Principles and General requirements for U-space, the flying of drones in a part of controlled and uncontrolled airspace. I’ve read the texts. There are very few specifics in the text, just a list of everything that must be defined and done and by whom.

The situation with eVTOL control services is similar. Many articles and reports about what is needed to enable the eVTOL revolution, but no concrete solutions or agreements on how to get things implemented by the relevant air safety authorities.

OEMs, like EVE, work on software packages for eVTOL air traffic control. But are these acceptable to adopt for state agencies to control air traffic services? Such solutions must handle general aviation, helicopters, drones, and eVTOLs in what the FAA calls UTM and EASA U-space.

The fetter of eVTOL development.

The work on how all this will fit together and enable five to 10 times more movements per day is perhaps the area that will hold back eVTOL development the most once the vehicle problems are sorted.

In next week’s Corner, we look closer at all that must be achieved and where we are on each subject.


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7 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: Sustainable Air Transport. Part 47. eVTOL traffic

  1. The inevitable retort from the eVTOL OEMs will be that AI will solve such ATC problems (the same argument was probably used as a pitch to investors).
    Alas — not any time soon.
    AI can do impressive things, but it’s far from infallible — and ATC is an area in which overt failure is simply not acceptable.

    Some choice recent examples of AI screw-ups:

    “Tesla FSD Mistakes Moon for Yellow Traffic Light”

    “Astronomer in Twitter limbo over ‘intimate’ meteor”

  2. Sounds easier to altitude separate helo and UAM flight corridors into airports and have UAM’s follow routes to their fixed based operator. In theory could UAM’s follow the highways into airports over the traffic jams and use extended curb space for emergency landings. It would be safer if ATC took over flights from an UAM holding pattern outside the airports and fly the UAMs remotely thru standardized automation avionics. Then the EU and US need to agree on the standard and the boxes, it can easily take 15-25 years unless USAF/NATO issues the standard first and FAA/EASA are forced to follow.

  3. An electric luxury car waiting for you in front of the office/ house/ hotel bringing you close to your airliner might not be such a bad idea after all, for those short distances.

    An eVTOL is less flexible, bounded by corridors & serious flight safety restrictions. And they are energy guzzlers, noisy. How critical is 10-15 minutes sometimes extra really, if you have to pay the full bill yourself?

    eVOTL has become big investments and lots of promises have been made, so.. “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

    Lemmings come to mind.

  4. There’s a third heliport in Manhattan, the Downtown Manhattan Airport (JRB/KJRB) at Pier 6, just north of the Statten Island Ferry terminal. Used for private, charter, tour, commercial and VVIP (Marine One). Adds to the complexity along with the seaplane area adjacent to the East 34th Street Heliport!

  5. -The 5G series of standards contains protocols for position measurement called “positional services” able to provide geopositioning to within 30cm. It is meant to support self driving cars and aviation and UAV up to a certain speed.
    -At this point I think it extremely important that an EU Diktat and a Presidential Order via the FCC is issued to ensure the cellular service and indeed cellphone makers activate and get the system functioning so that an ASAT attack on Galileo or GPS does not nock out global economy or navigation.
    -Because Airliners, Helicopters, Light Aircraft will need to share space with UAM and drones the ATC system must be interoperable. VFR must go outside of only a few areas.
    -I suspect the 5G standard must be enhanced to allow airliners to use it. Of course 5G isn’t essential as different systems of position measurement can interact. 5G can provide accurate position and velocity measurement but it does not provide deconfliction of flight paths.

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