Urban Air Mobility

An emerging segment of the aviation industry generating significant technological development and opportunity is urban air mobility (UAM) or on-demand aviation.  Urban air mobility generally refers to point-to-point passenger and cargo flights in congested urban areas using advanced electrically powered aircraft capable of vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL).  Aircraft designed for this niche market, sometimes called air taxis, are the embodiment of next-generation aerospace innovation, incorporating the latest breakthroughs in design optimization, engineering, composite materials, additive manufacturing, miniaturization of components, wireless communications, sensors, and sustainable propulsion technologies.  Urban air mobility is part of “advanced air mobility (AAM),” the term given by NASA to encompass the broad range of potential new aerial applications enabled by electric and autonomous aircraft.

In addition to becoming a viable urban transit alternative to ground transportation, UAM is also anticipated to compete effectively with conventional helicopters, which are expensive to operate and maintain and not well-suited to urban environments due to their vibration, noise and CO2 emissions, as well as safety issues.  A key feature of UAM which is integral to the aircraft’s design requirements is minimizing environmental impact through low noise levels, clean emissions and a reduced logistical footprint.

One of the technical challenges with UAM aircraft is the availability of adequate clean energy power systems.  For fully electric aircraft, the current state of battery technology places limitations on duration, speed, range and payload capacity due to its relatively low energy-to-weight ratio and long charging cycle.  Other issues with UAM that need to be addressed are infrastructure, certification standards, airspace integration and regulations, market acceptance and economic feasibility based on realistic business models.  The implementation of 5G wireless communications and advancements in artificial intelligence will further the development of autonomous functions in UAM aircraft.