Pontifications: Technical challenges for UAMs, et al, only part of the problems

By Scott Hamilton

March 28, 2023, © Leeham News: Technical challenges for alternative energy aircraft are daunting. Urban Air Mobility, Advanced Air Mobility, eVTOLs, batteries, hydrogen, hybrids—this list goes on.

Advances are reaching a point where some of the concepts in development will be ready for service within a few years. As LNA’s Bjorn Fehrm has written about these various ideas, there remain questions over the feasibility and commercial viability, but I’m not going to repeat these here.

Rather, there are other areas to consider. LNA has touched on the issues of Air Traffic Management (ATM) and pilot needs. The latter applies to on-board or remote piloting. If there is a big pilot shortage in the airline industry (and there are biased rebuttals to the contrary), where are pilots for thousands of  UAMs, eVTOLs, small airplanes, etc., going to be found?

Certainly, pilots for these aircraft don’t need the minimum 1,500 hours mandated to be an airline pilot. But manpower is manpower and if you don’t have the people, the number of hours required doesn’t matter. I can’t say I’d be too keen on being transported by a pilot, either in the vehicle or at some joystick somewhere, who is running around like the Jetsons.

Automation in lieu of pilots presents a whole new arena of questions. Yes, automation is used in the military already, as are remotely piloted drones. Boeing CEO David Calhoun thinks automation is in the future of commercial aviation sooner than later.

But there are more issues to consider than these: Production, product support, and the supply chain are hardly inconsequential issues.

Product support, production, and the supply chain

Steve Haro is CEO of North American Aerospace Industries. North American does 100% aircraft recycling.

A career Boeing employee, he is now active in the eco-aviation industry. He noted, as LNA has on occasion, that commercial aviation has been slow to dedicate efforts to eco-aviation progress beyond incremental improvements to engines and airframes.

Although Boeing has researched eco-aviation methods for 30 years to “green up” its airplanes specifically and commercial aviation generally, Haro said determined efforts only began in the last 5-10 years.

“How quickly can you certify these aircraft and how quickly can you scale them?” Haro asked rhetorically during the PBExpo conference this month in Miami Beach (FL). He didn’t have an answer.

Then there is the requirement for aftermarket support. Haro, who worked for Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp (MITAC) after retiring from Boeing, noted that MITAC had to acquire the Bombardier CRJ global support system to prepare to support the M100 SpaceJet. (MITAC’s parent killed the SpaceJet program at the start of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic but retained the CRJ global support business.)

Haro also said passenger experience is another element of these vehicles. Few if any have a lavatory, for example. But if flights are up to an hour, is one needed?

There are more than 300 companies developing more than 200 concepts in alternative energy urban air mobility or advanced air mobility aircraft, he said. “Ninety percent of them aren’t ever going to get to market. Of the 10% that are remaining, I’m going to say 50% will probably have a difficult time scaling, and getting their manufacturing and supply base working properly. In the end, there will be five or 10 that are left.”

Haro said the urban air mobility market size is probably about $20bn to $30bn. (Advanced air mobility increases the size somewhat.) Some forecasts project growth rates of between 17% and 30% annually—a wide margin. But, Haro said, these numbers are being “thrown out there because nobody knows how many of the 300 companies are going to be successful.”

34 Comments on “Pontifications: Technical challenges for UAMs, et al, only part of the problems

  1. How much funding is still available for such projects?
    One would have thought that the easy money from VCs would have dried up by now, in view of recent changes in the macroeconomic/financial landscape.

  2. There are plenty of commercial flights lasting an hour or more done on small aircraft without lavatories, so that is likely not an obstacle – go before you go or cross your legs.

    • I made the horrible mistake of not going before a puddle jump from Wichita Falls Tx to Dallas once as a young man after having a few in the airport bar before boarding, not realizing that there would not be a lav on the plane, or even aware that that was possible on a commercial flight.

      that was a very unpleasant flight, and of course when we got to Dallas it was 1/4 mile to the nearest mens room.

      • You should have known the Rio Airways Twin Otters or B1900Cs, or American Eagle Jetstream 32s did not have lavs.

        • Should have added LOL…..

          Many fliers have Bilbos attitude toward small prop aircraft. How is that going to change when its a small prop aircraft with NO pilots?

        • to be fair, it was probably only my second time ever being on a prop job, over 35 years ago, and the only other prop job I had flown on was a DC-3 when I was about 5 or 6 on a hop from Miami to Naples and my parents made sure I went potty before getting on the plane.

          • Thats the first thing I do on a normal scheduled flight- go to the toilet once we have reached cruising level. Not because I have to but beats the rush later on

  3. Airlines like the idea of picking up high value customers and make sure they continue in their aircrafts business class sections and don’t get onto a competitors aircraft. Hence airlines who don’t pick up these VIP’s in an UAM lose their business.

  4. There is a company doing autonomous drone deliveries in Rwanda to remote rural hospitals. It is a very cool system, and it appears to work very well. One advantage they probably have is that there is probably not a lot of air traffic in Rwanda. No ATC issues I could see.


    • First time ever been very impressed by the combination of ideas in this use of delivery drones, as well the products been delivered of course

  5. As I recall the Eclipse jet was going to be so cheap your average homeless person could afford one. Busted.

    You want to land one of those on my street and clog traffic up for 10 minutes while you load one up? Not that anyone on my street can afford one.

    Minute numbers in a hugely costly aircraft at a huge price.

    Someone needs to ref the carnage in AK on the flight tours because that is the real world of aviation and mission focus vs safety. The FAA can’t even manage that to make it safe.

    • You drive a few miles to your favourite UAM heliport used by your airline and put your Tesla on free charging, then take the skylift up to the bar/check-in/security and walk into your UAM that will take you to the airport pad just over the airline departure hall. If you fly A380 biz class you only take the elevator down to the biz lounge and enter the A380 thru its top door right into first/business class. Life will be easy for the well off…

    • The same arguments are used against space travel and Formula 1 racing, to give just two of the more extreme examples. Surely the point is that slowly but surely practical applications will emerge for the technology that gradually emerges? In truth, it’s nearly all speculative research, but that’s far harder to get money for than a programme with “profit potential”. Investors really do need have their eyes wide open when splashing their cash, and recognise that this really is a field where they’re probably not going to see their money back, let alone a return on their “investment”.

      • Sometimes car racing technology get into family cars, like when Renault took the F1 engine team and told them to design high efficiency engines for the masses. In the 1960’s Japanese Motocross teams in Europe developed the bikes thru the season and after the final race they were shipped to Japan and copied to next years production standard.

      • the biggest problem in F1 these days is that the vast majority of technology development that is potentially relevant to passenger cars has been banned.

        The following have all been banned:
        carbon fiber wheels
        automatic & CVT transmissions
        varieties of adaptive engine modes
        active suspension
        MGH (starting in 2026)
        multiple fuel injectors per cylinder
        composite engine blocks and internal components
        active valve trains

        the current generation of engines actually have a lot of applicable technology, but have been hamstrung by the fuel injector, engine mode and transmission rules. the shocking amounts of money spent to make what is effectively a modernized version of Honda’s 1970 CVCC concept work with a single fuel injector far outweighs the alleged cost savings of not having multiple fuel injectors.

        all that is left is composite structures, combustion chamber and turbo optimization.

  6. if we slowly forget the fysical battery capacity shortage for decades to come and inflexible safety / ATC requirements for populated areas it might start looking good for the eVTOL’s. Because they say so..

    • Something I don’t think anyone has discussed yet is the matter of noise. Perhaps electric UAVs will be quieter than helicopters, but it would be surprising if they are not nevertheless rather loud! Another irritation that will also restrict their use in populated areas must surely the matter of dust and other mess/damage caused by prop/rotor wash. Does anyone else have thoughts on these considerations?

      • Of course Roger is right. Electric engines are less noisy, but noise is created by fast moving air. And 4, 6, 8 small props moving air faster than a helicopters big rotor will produce more noise. Physics.

        But it seems so much money is invested, people jobs depend on it, we all want to go sustainable, “green investments” have to be realized. We concluded to go with the flow is far more comfortable than pointing out real obstacles & risk looking like Statler and Waldorf.. Specially politicians (seldom techies) will avoid that at any cost.

      • There must be good regulations for the UAM heliports to make them safe, quiet and comfortable. I assume they have lightning protection, charging and maybe a superconducting 100′ cable to help the UAM with power up to transition to level flight with automatic release and wind-up with free customer EV cars charging.

  7. From where will the vast army of “pilots” come indeed? Flying things over people’s heads safely takes an awful lot of expensive stuff; a lot of maintenance hours, highly skilled labour in several departments, fuel / energy, and a large and expensive traffic management system. Whereas a bus / truck / van / scooter + driver is a whole lot cheaper, especially if the road is already there. Trains are a pretty good bet, where there’s track.

    We’ve had the tech for urban air mobility for a long time. It’s called the helicopter. The cost of employing a pilot is not the thing that prevents wider urban usage; it’s the cost of everything else.

    Besides, no one has got a real answer for self-driving anything, apart from trains which operate in a wholly closed, artificially constrained man made environment – the tracks. The self driving car thing seems to be hitting the inevitable plateaux of being “nearly, but not good enough”; turns out the last 5% is the hardest, most expensive 5%. It’d be the same with UAM; some intially great prospects, followed by dawning realisation that it can’t be done.

    • The orders may already be there, listed in Boeing’s as “Unidentified.” Just speculating.

      • Even more intriguing…. hidden orders all along, as well as resuming delivery of the 138 stored Maxs.

      • Or that MAXs will be redistributed within China, and concentrated at 1 or 2 carriers.
        A small Chinese carrier returned a 4-year-old MAX to a lessor last week. That plane can now be taken up by China Southern, for example.

        Incidentally, where any/all of this is concerned: seeing is believing.

        • or the the Great Wall keeping out Boeing was just an illusion. Just like the wall keeping out Australian coal was.
          Seems some cant have adjusted yet to the changed party line
          Thems the breaks when you dont have the winning hands.

          • We’ll see soon enough.
            The original documents cited in your link only talk about fleet increments — they don’t say that those fleet increments will be coming in the form of new orders.
            And your link also pointed out that, although Air China has 27 MAXs on order, there’s no mention of any MAX inductions into the fleet up to 2025.

            Maybe it was an April fools joke 😉

          • That link was about resuming deliveries of stored planes. I wasnt even thinking about new orders until Scott speculated that they might be ‘unannounced’ .
            Hardly something thats provable …yet.

            25 new Max orders for a single customer werent identified in Jan alone, usually its only small numbers for each customer which are like this.
            plus 7 787-10s!

          • The documents on which the link is based, were purely about fleet increments.
            The author in the link then speculated that such increments might be due to orders.

  8. Well, the Lockheed Martin thing changes everything. If it happens, I wonder who Taiclet will put in charge of Boeing commercial. As for the defense stuff, one has to assume that its many pieces will be broken apart and assigned as underlings to the various appropriate places in LM.

    I guess there is no way back now, and that Calhoun and Kellner finally realized that either A.) they don’t know what they are doing, or B.) they have stripped the company of all of the wealth there is to get out of it.

    Now I know how some of the IHC folks felt when their part of the company ended up as a minor no-name operation buried inside Stellantis.

  9. Bryce,

    Take off your rose-colored glasses and come back to real life. Does it hurt you that much that Boeing is ahead 10 years above Airbus on this.

    Whatever route Boeing takes Airbus will copy anyway so no worries for Airbus. It’s just history repeating itself…👍

    • Yes, BA is WAY ahead of AB when it comes to having large numbers of planes corroding out in the parking lot 😅

      And BA is also WAY ahead of AB when it comes to unsustainable debt 🙈

      Not sure that AB will ever catch up on those points 😏

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