Building Urban Air Mobility Could Require Looking Outside Helicopter Industry

By Nick Zazulia and S.L. Fuller | March 1, 2018

The rotorcraft industry has been ripe with urban air mobility talk for nearly one year, as Uber introduced its idea for a new electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxi ecosystem May 2017. Since that time, the conversation has begun to focus not on the broad ideas, but on the details.

A Heli-Expo panel Wednesday in Las Vegas brought together leaders from Bell, Uber, General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), AHS International and the FAA to talk about urban air mobility and how it will require the convergence of industries to get the movement off the ground.

One of those industries is consumer electronics. Bell EVP of Technology and Innovation Michael Thacker said the reason Bell revealed its aircraft design at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in January instead of an aviation event is that that is the audience that will need to embrace this technology. A focus for Bell is trying to help people understand how aviation can or will be able to be a useful, convenient part of their everyday life. This would require, he continued, a focus on public opinion.

The creation of a functioning urban mobility system would also require outside technology input. Thacker said that attention is being given to the technology outside of the aviation industry. This includes tech startups, the automotive industry and more. They could inform what underlying pieces are present that could be adapted or — with significant work — certified to help eVTOL along the path from the federated cockpit to fully autonomous.

“These electric VTOLS need to be way, way better than helicopters, across every single evaluation metric,” said Uber’s Director of Aviation Engineering Mark Moore. “Whether that’s safety, efficiency, noise, speed, you name it, we’re talking about being multiple times better than what helicopters can do.”

But, of course, many existing avionics companies are “aggressively moving forward,” according to Thacker, with technology such as fly-by-wire and automation technology for cockpit functions. Some companies are vying to “be the industry’s Tesla,” — a metaphor that was repeatedly tossed around during the panel.

The goal, though, is for these eVTOL aircraft to be more accessible to the general public than a Tesla is. When Uber Elevate comes to city with an initial 50 aircraft, Uber wants there to be 300-500 within a few years, and over 1,000 within a few more. Moore said the economics just don’t work out without that scaling.

At this point, the vehicles themselves need to be scaled. There are some eVTOL models out there, but none have demonstrated the ability to carry the amount of passengers needed for the system to be economical.

“We do not see full electrical architecture for application for platforms flying beyond 30 minutes and carrying more than 100 kg within the next two decades because of battery capacity,” said Bruno Bellanger, EVP of programs at Safran Helicopter Engines, during an earlier press briefing.

Bell’s Director of Innovation Scott Drennan was surprised by Bellanger’s statement, when R&WI spoke to him a couple days later. Drennan thinks the “two decades” Bellanger mentioned was unrealistically long.

“The energy density curve has not been as steep as some people would have liked,” Drennan said. “A lot of really smart people are working on that problem right now, so we’re hopeful that [the Bell air taxi] could be an electric vehicle very shortly after we get it going.”

Bell’s timeline aligns with Ubers mid-2020s vision, as the two companies are official partners in Uber’s Elevate air taxi initiative. By then, Bell expects its futuristic, electric vehicle to carry a considerably larger payload than 100 kg. Right now, though, Bell’s models utilize hybrid architecture.

“If I were to sum it up, we’re more optimistic than Safran,” he said. “But some people could accuse us of not being optimistic because of how we’re starting out.”

Scaling is also important from a manufacturing standpoint, where Moore described bridging the safe, high-quality aerospace industry with the efficient, low-cost automotive industry. As with the offerings in a city, things would start with a lower volume, but the goal is to get to a manufacturing scale that mimics the automotive world that drives down costs, which he said is necessary for the business model to make sense for both Uber and for customers.

Pilots are an integral part to this model. Although the ultimate goal is for these eVTOLs to be autonomous, that goal is years and years away. GAMA VP of Global Innovation and Policy Greg Bowles discussed what GAMA calls “the deconstructed pilot:” a breakdown of the different attributes required of a pilot. The group uses these individual attributes to evaluate, on a sliding scale, where automation has equaled or surpassed human pilots (think navigation and systems management) and where it still has a way to go (for example, communication and detect-and-avoid ability).

Using that breakdown makes it easier to look at how close the industry is to a fully autonomous cockpit and what would still be needed to make that a reality, according to Bowles.

He also said that, in contrast with helicopters, the standard with eVTOLs would not be to shut down automation in the case of a failure, because the level of artificial intelligence and redundancy in the cockpit would enable its continued functionality to help rather than hinder operation, pointing to the approximate 80% of helicopter crashes that are a result of human error.

AHS International Executive Director Mike Hirschberg reinforced the idea that eVTOLs are not synonymous with helicopters, in much the same way that “cars were not buggies with mechanical horses.” While this idea only requires some to readjust their word choices, it presents the FAA with more challenges.

Mike Romanowski, director of policy and innovation for FAA Aircraft Certification Service, relayed the message of the agency as a whole: The industry has evolved, and the FAA is trying to adapt to meet new needs. He admitted that many of the FAA’s traditional certification methods were no longer a good fit for everything and spoke of an effort to become more agile and work with industry partners, like those on stage, to make processes smoother and faster in line with companies that are changing rapidly and internationally intertwined. The FAA is working hard to ensure that it is “not the barrier” to progress and things are otherwise ready, he said.

At this point in the journey to UberAir, Moore said Uber is interested in soliciting designs and technology from all entrants into the market. With so many unknowns in both business and technological aspects, the company wants to keep the discussions open. Moore said that it will probably make sense for Uber to pare it down to a few close collaborators in the future, but for now it is happy to see as many companies as possible working on solutions in the space.

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