If the concept of urban air taxis landing on rooftops proves viable, in the not-too-distant future we will be able to walk up to the top of a taller building and board a self-propelled airplane to fly to another station across the city. In the meantime, we are omitting ground traffic and depressing traffic jams. But when?
As we reported, the Chinese wire manufacturing company Ehang performed a pilot flight of Ehang’s 216 two-seater passenger aircraft. According to the company, flights through the cities of Seoul and Daegu as well as Jeju Island will be the starting point for the creation of the South Korean Urban Air Mobility (UAM) market. However, there is also a skeptical approach that focuses on challenges rather than hurray optimism. The vision of thousands of electric VTOL drones flying seamlessly over densely populated urban areas as part of an all-encompassing mobility ecosystem (scooter, taxi, bus, train, air taxi) can be as long as 20 years from us. In any case, the list of problems identified so far is indeed extensive. After the pilot flights, EHang Holdings announced that its two-seater taxi had completed its licensed flights in the Republic of Korea. The Korean government announced its UAM roadmap in June 2020, outlining in detail the steps required to commercialize UAV services between 2023 and 2025.
The pilot flights may have been created by the company obtaining its first Special Aviation License (SAC) issued by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (Molit). Accordingly, EHang was able to present three different application cases, demonstrating different scenarios with them. But have all obstacles really been removed from UAVs? Going back to the difficulties of the thing, today’s limits on the energy density of batteries unfortunately limit their usability to very short stretches, especially when regulation requires a higher flight time. For example, if the existing U.S. FAA regulations on good weather conditions apply to UAVs from the 30-minute flight time limit, most potential e-VTOL flights that exist today may be subject to severe restrictions.
“We are also working to accelerate the development of UAVs to overcome traffic jams and turn it into a new engine of economic development,” said Kim Dae-gweon, mayor of Daegu City, Suseong District after the successful pilot closed. A drone taxi called EHang 216 took off from downtown Yeouido Island in Seoul to fly over a densely populated area on its own. The second flight was conducted in Daegu City, Suseong District, carrying 119 firefighting kits and AED (automatic external defibrillator) packages. The last flight flew over Jeju Island, an air taxi flew over the shoreline to demonstrate the use of aerial sightseeing.
All of this happened in nice, sunny weather, but bad weather conditions can also be a challenge for future air taxis. Battery-only e-VTOL flights are likely to be restricted to VFR (you can only fly in good weather), at least initially. This may be especially true when icing conditions also exist, as de-icing requires a significant amount of electrical energy. These drones already have a small reserve of electrical energy, and this can greatly reduce their usability in many big cities exposed to bad weather, thus narrowing the deployment of e-VTOL to cities with the right weather conditions. Operating very light e-VTOL aircraft in densely populated cities, between extremely tall buildings, in poor visibility, among low-lying clouds, with thunderstorms, ice, rain, and abnormal, unpredictable windstorms between tall buildings is unlikely to be a safe business.
“Air taxis are humanity’s dream for future transportation. Urban air mobility services are attracting a lot of attention, and we expect them to alleviate congestion in land transport, with huge growth potential, ”said Seo Jeong-hyup, Mayor of Seoul. The potential for growth is undoubtedly important, but by no means a magic word, as the difficulties of scalability will not be a definite source of joy either. As Uber previously revealed at the Uber Elevate conference, their business model is only profitable on a large scale, with the deployment of thousands of e-VTOLs, preferably autonomous control, so that the pilot seat can also be omitted or used for revenue generation.
And there are several factors working against economies of scale. For example, obtaining certificates. Regulators will not risk lowering the level of safety standards, especially as e-VTOLs will operate over densely populated cities where an accident is likely to have serious consequences. Persuading the public can also be an obstacle. To put it mildly and from an economic point of view, scaling up the profitability of the introduction of the e-VTOL system, per 1,000 vehicles in metropolitan areas, could easily lead to public resistance. Especially if the service is too expensive, if the noise generated is annoyingly high for people living on the ground, or if accidents occur. There may also be a difference in the attitudes of cities, there may be those who support it, others may reject the technology.
Infrastructure and the lack of infrastructure are also a hindrance. The widespread deployment of e-VTOLs requires the construction of landings and take-offs, and ideally in places where intermodal connections are available, such as metro or train stations. This must be accompanied by battery charging infrastructure, passenger waiting areas and so on. New building rules and equipment will also be needed because of the high energy consumption, tools to put out and isolate a fire caused by a lithium battery, and of course to safely evacuate the crowd from attic, or at least high-lying stations. And cities will adapt to these paradigm shifting infrastructure transformations at different speeds, some faster, others slower or not at all. This will also slow down the installation to the ideal size scale.
If anyone thought it was all, they were wrong. There is also a need for new air traffic control. The widespread deployment of e-VTOLs will also require new aviation regulations and new technology to safely handle the huge volume of planned low-altitude air traffic. Undoubtedly, the upcoming, though at the same time still quite distant, world of UAVs will create a new market that does not yet exist. E-VTOL aircraft are short-range, can fly less than 100 kilometers, are limited to low-speed flights, and will not be competitive in most existing helicopter and aircraft markets, except in areas such as short-haul air taxis, emergency medical services (EMS). ) and some military applications. Achieving the right size and profitability for the new UAM market can take decades.