Three lessons on advanced air mobility and how it can benefit cities
March 31, 2022
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  • Following SmartCitiesWorld’s roundtable at GUAAS 2022, senior editor Luke Antoniou reflects on the lessons shared by the experts, exploring how advanced air mobility can take off in cities and become part of a wider, better connected transportation network.

    Over the course of the next 20 years, the advanced air mobility (AAM) market is estimated to grow to be worth more than $1.5 trillion.

    There can be little question that the application of advanced air mobility services in urban environments carries with it significant potential for local economies and transportation networks, but myriad questions remain over the process and requirements that must be put in place to realise that potential in the near- and long-term future.

    At the beginning of March, SmartCitiesWorld hosted a roundtable discussion at GUAAS – the biannual Global Urban & Advanced Air Mobility Summit – between a group of industry representatives, whose expertise ranged from city infrastructure and innovation to air mobility operation and safety, to seek answers to those pressing questions.

    Considering infrastructure, policy, access and connectivity, the expert panel deliberated for 90 minutes on the requirements needed in the coming years to launch safe, environmentally sustainable and economically viable urban air mobility services. From those discussions come three critical lessons for city authorities and potential AAM market entrants to heed.

    Perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle for advanced air mobility services to launch in cities is putting in place the correct infrastructure, whether in the form of physical infrastructure, such as urban airports, or digital infrastructure, like adapted and integrated air traffic management systems.

    The potential applications and services that AAM can bring to urban environments are almost entirely new to cities and their local and transport authorities, who typically have been used to managing surface transportation modes. The challenge that an entirely new mode of transport, operating in a space that cities have, as yet, had little experience of managing, is not lost on transport authorities.

    Speaking during the roundtable, Sunil Budhdeo, transport innovation manager for Coventry City Council – which is playing host to the world’s first dedicated urban airport, Air One – explained that Coventry has had to learn quickly about the infrastructure requirements in the last year since it has been part of the Innovate UK-funded Future Flight 2 project.

    “The infrastructure is the key to getting drones operating safely, and the safety side then leads to public acceptance. At the moment, it’s difficult enough to get the public to use EVs – to operate drones in an urban environment is going to be even more challenging,” said Budhdeo. “Local authorities are going to need a lot of support from the people sat at this table to try and understand where they need to go in terms of developing and operating the infrastructure.”

    Understanding infrastructure requirements in a nascent market is easier said than done, a point that Gary Cutts, director of the Future Flight Challenge, expanded on: “This market is developing so quickly that what we need in terms of physical infrastructure isn’t fixed yet – I would argue it may never be fixed. If the pace of the market and the technology is as fast as I think it is, we could be looking at new concepts every five years that we need new infrastructure for.

    “The challenge there is that we have to design infrastructure that is completely reconfigurable and upgradable through its lifetime, because we can’t afford to build £50m concrete edifices for aircrafts that turn out to have a lifespan of three years.”

    “No matter how much we plan and try to understand what we’re about to do, we don’t understand it – it’s too emergent,” Cutts continued. “I believe in learning by doing, like in a living lab. We need to go and do this somewhere and not overthink it, because there will be unintended consequences – good and bad.”

    One city that is uniquely placed to build from the ground up and employ a living lab approach from a very early stage is Saudi Arabia’s Neom. The greenfield site has the opportunity to build eVTOL services and the necessary infrastructure into the city from the start, rather than having to integrate them retroactively, as almost every other city interested in AAM applications will have to do.

    With the challenge of scalable infrastructure brought into the equation, Sheryl Foo, senior specialist in mobility for Neom, said that cities must also consider the necessary additional assets – such as power stations or access roads – that will need to be part of the infrastructure, whether it is scalable, temporary or fixed.

    There are lessons to be learned here from traditional airports, whose expertise lay primarily in operating ground infrastructure, such as that which will be required to enable urban AAM services, and whose existing infrastructure will play a vital role as a backbone for urban aviation. Despite this, there are still challenges for traditional airports around integration and adaptability, as Neom’s Sheryl Foo suggested.

    Speaking from Munich Airport International, VP of corporate development Ivonne Kruger said: “As an airport 30 years in the making, we are facing the challenge of just integrating this new means of transportation into existing infrastructure – and that applies to the technical and regulatory landscape, too.”

    Picking up the thread on the living lab approach, Kruger explained that it’s not necessarily easy for airports to take this approach: “I’m pleased to hear about the Coventry lab environment for testing and experimenting because it’s something that, as an airport operator and one of the busiest hubs in Europe, we cannot necessarily do between our two parallel runways.”

    In Coventry, Air One is being developed next door to the city’s main railway station by way of demonstrating AAM’s potential to be part of cities’ wider integrated transport network, which is set to be key in future adoption of services as genuine everyday mobility options. At the same time, urban air mobility and its related infrastructure doesn’t only provide a future mode of transportation for people and cargo, it also has a part to play in broader urban development and has the potential to be a placemaking and economic growth tool for cities.

    Considering the potential of mobility hubs as part of ongoing urban space development, as well as the history of traditional airports development into retail experiences, Jason Fowler, chair of the British Aviation Group, explained that urban airports and vertiports must not be thought of only in terms of their capabilities as transport infrastructure.

    “Historically, people have settled and developed around transport nodes. As we travel and prove the product and the effectiveness of it to the public, the way to attract private sector investment – as larger aviation has done over the years – is to make clear what the throughputs are, and what the advantages of investing in development around these new nodes will be,” said Fowler. “They will develop as places as well as operational transport hubs, with retail and leisure offerings and residential developments. Beyond the proving of the product, we have to begin to imagine how these places will develop that will emerge around vertiports.”

    Darrell Swanson, a strategic advisor for NASA, echoed these sentiments, saying we need only look as far as airports in London like Heathrow and Gatwick to see how airports develop their own economies. Swanson explained it will be crucial for authorities to undertake systems planning to understand what impact AAM could have on the local economy, understand the planning they will need to do, and also recognise the potential negative effects it could have.

    If infrastructure is key to getting AAM services off the ground, then public safety and acceptance – both of the infrastructure and the services themselves – will define whether they can truly be successful and integrated as part of the everyday mobility mix, as will the regulation and policy that must be developed alongside them to ensure they’re launched safely and responsibly.

    Cities and their partners are still at a very early stage of establishing processes through which to roll out future services and infrastructure. Understanding of requirements must come almost as quickly as they’re realised for authorities – there’s no playbook for urban AAM because the industry is writing it as it goes.

    Jacques Coulon, transportation planning projects coordinator for the City of Orlando, suggests: “It’s going to take a while to ramp up and get the major throughput of either cargo or passengers. There’s an issue at the moment where policy is either stifling and getting too far ahead of the technology, or where it’s not responsive to the technology or is way too far behind, leading to a ‘wait and see’ situation.

    “That’s where we are; we’re still finding what our role is as a city in regulation for AAM. How we regulate ground transportation is very clear but once that vehicle is in the air, municipalities in the central Florida region are very segregated. We can’t have one municipality saying it wants AAM and the next one over saying no; we need that metropolitan-based look at the networks, but also to understand at the local level how AAM will impact and fit into the city.”

    When AAM is touted as a potential solution to sustainability issues, it’s perhaps natural to think immediately of its green transportation credentials – after all, electric VTOL vehicles are most referenced as the solution through which urban AAM applications will be achieved. On the reverse side of this coin, though, is the challenge of commercial sustainability and, in the first instance, viability – a challenge that Munich Airport’s Ivonne Kruger is exploring already.

    “The biggest challenge we’re facing as an airport operator is making this commercially viable – it’s not the technical side or the regulatory environment, it’s the economic challenges. eVTOL operations will not bring a single additional passenger to our airport, they will simply replace other means of reaching us. Yet, we’re now asked to invest in new infrastructure to support it; even if it’s modular or prototype in the beginning, we’ll still have to build it, though we don’t know what the operational model will mean for commercial challenges.”

    There’s no question that the pace of innovation in the market shows no sign of slowing, potentially to the mid- to long-term detriment of AAM in already established aviation hubs. For cities, given their lack of experience in air mobility to date, it’s a case of caution and cautious optimism. Coventry’s Sunil Budhdeo urges patience and process: “My personal view is that we have to take things very slowly – operate with emergency services first, cargo second, and finally passengers when we feel that the drone operation is safe at that level.”

    Bristow Group’s executive vice president of sales and chief transformation officer, David Stepanek, put safety and acceptance at the front of all participants’ minds during a brief presentation, describing how safety is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

    “We’re at a revolutionary point in aerospace, but safety is evolutionary. Safety takes time, it takes learning, it takes experience. It’s not just safe design by the type certification of an aircraft, but safety by flight operation, by ground operation, by maintenance practices – an organisation’s entire safety culture. On the urban airside, the pace and cadence of operations is going to be tremendously high. That’s going to put pressure – real or perceived – on aircrews, ground handlers, customer service representatives and maintenance teams. It’s about how we manage that pressure and build ways of coping with it into the infrastructure.”

    Ahead of the roundtable, SmartCitiesWorld undertook some analysis of the ways that cities could look to implement AAM as part of the everyday mobility mix. At the heart of this is the ability of new services – and new infrastructure – to be integrated into wider urban transportation networks, lest they become mere status symbols for the wealthy at the expense of valuable urban space.

    City of Orlando’s Jacques Coulon said that for local authorities, and for Orlando specifically, it’s a case of asking the right questions and working out the role that AAM can play both for authorities and communities.

    “As a local municipality, the question we’re asking is how AAM supplements our existing infrastructure and transportation network, said Coulon. “At least for the foreseeable future, it’s not a replacement for what we already have in place.”

    In response, Darrell Swanson agreed, explaining: “Vertiports have to complement not compete with public transport, but what are the additional businesses around that area that will form, and how authorities from a planning perspective help guide that to benefit everybody?

    “Whether or not services go into individual neighbourhoods is another question aligned with social acceptance, but it’s really about using this potential as a tool to move people closer to their destinations faster, with a higher utility that is generating economic activity for everybody involved in the chain, while making sure it’s for a wider proportion of the public and not just high-worth individuals who can afford it. In the early years, that will be the case, but that’s just echoes the history of commercial aviation.”

    Focusing on the users of AAM services is just half of a potentially tricky equation for authorities and their partners to solve, however. The planning, placement and construction of infrastructure has the potential to deal considerable harm, whether social, environmental, economic or otherwise, to cities – something that Future Flight Challenge lead Kerissa Khan urged those at the table not to take for granted.

    “Something we need to be mindful of is the wider social impact of infrastructure,” explained Khan. “When we put down ground infrastructure, certain demographics tend to be more negatively affected than others. We need to understand, with infrastructure and with operations, whether actions are going to reduce social inequities or exacerbate them.”

    As part of this, cities and authorities have to be sold AAM as a genuine solution to their challenges around both city and transport planning, and that genuine integration is possible, and won’t come at the expense of another service. Sunil Budhdeo described some of the work that Coventry City Council has done with Connected Places Catapult in order to overcome those potential hurdles.

    “We are working with Catapult and trying to expedite some of the planning procedures because this is all new. How do we introduce this into the planning forum? If documentation around process is ready, detailing what cities need to do, cities will accept. The concept has to be sold to all local authorities to show that this is the future mode of transport – it will not replace another mode, it is only going to enhance.”

    In response, Liam McKay, director of corporate affairs for London City Airport, explained how transport authorities’ viewpoints on AAM are beginning to change as other issues arise, such as TfL, given the recent Tube strike in London which closed one of the world’s busiest public transportation networks.

    “Ordinarily, transport authorities might have seen eVTOLs as a problem, but given the situation we’re in post-pandemic and with financial constraints, in a London context, this is something that could be packaged up and presented as a solution to bring TfL in as a supporter for this type of project in the long term,” said McKay.

    He continued: “Speaking in a London context again, surface access – despite projects like Crossrail – is still imperfect, particularly from city centres to regions. I don’t think we’re going to see any further surface access megaprojects like that any time soon, and while eVTOLs won’t necessarily provide an alternative to that, they can be used as a short-term sticking plaster. I believe that could make a difference to how AAM is sold on a city-by-city basis.”

    Work must begin on the ground

    What’s clear from the conversation and the exchanges between roundtable participants is that cities, local authorities, new operators and policymakers are all still feeling their way into this new market. While progress is steady in an urban context, the pace of innovation in the market must lead to process and policy development from local and central governments around the world, while operators and new market entrants must present clear implementation strategies and funding models for cities to be able to adopt new infrastructure and new services.

    To develop highways in the sky, the work must begin on the ground to ensure that what is built is all at once accessible, integrated, equitable and – above all – safe if services are to appeal and be widely adopted by cities and their citizens.