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.
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.”