Everybody who has seen the Jetsons as a child probably remembers thinking, ‘I want this,’ when looking at the flexibility and ease of commuting that flying cars provided to the family. Henry Ford seems to have had the same idea when he said in 1940: “Mark my word: a combination of an airplane and a motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.” Clearly, being able to move freely in three rather than two dimensions and not being bound to physical road infrastructure that is clogged up with construction and blocked by trucks desperately trying to pass one another is tempting. So then, where do we stand?
Research and development work in the airborne mobility space is clustered under the concept of advanced air mobility (AAM). AAM typically involves both passenger and cargo transport as well as EMS (Emergency Medical Services) in urban (UAM, Urban Air Mobility) and regional (RAM, Regional Air Mobility) geographies. Currently developed aircraft are mostly runway independent aircraft (meaning VTOL, vertical take-off and Landing aircraft) with highly automated and electric propulsion systems (eVTOL, electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft). What is explicitly excluded from this work are conventional helicopters, small hobbyist drones that have no impact on the ecosystem except interaction with other aircraft, and long-distance aircraft for more than 19 passengers. AAM focuses squarely on transformative and disruptive airborne technology for the transport of people and things.
Use cases for applications come easily to mind. Passenger transport could include intra-city applications such as tourism and intra-city taxis. Airport shuttles and down the line transport between cities in the same region are also prospects. Commercial applications include agriculture, construction, energy, emergency medical services, and air freight. Identified eVTOL application cases differ in terms of the needed range and payload, from 100-250kg payload and 50-80 km range applications in agriculture to 500kg+ payload and more than 250 km range applications in air freight. Clearly, payload and range are the key factors that form the core of the mission profiles and aircraft requirements.
The wide range of mission profiles also implies that there are different hardware solutions that will be more applicable to some use cases than others. Across all start-ups and manufacturers, we can distinguish six different aircraft architectures with varied characteristics suitable for different use cases as shown in Figure 1.
From our perspective, while passenger applications generate significant interest and visibility—such as the announcement of an eVTOL airport shuttle between the city of Chicago and O’Hare—it is non-passenger applications that are likely to be deployed faster and have an easier way to revenue. The reason is simple: non-passenger applications do not involve sensitive personal security topics and mainly focus on cargo carrying capabilities. They are also easier to get approved and tested. Deployment for commercial operations in revenue generating operations for OEMs and service operators is likely to be faster. Passenger applications, on the other hand, need to go through a strict certification process for the eVTOL hardware safety validation and low altitude operation design rules. Co-ordination with various city governance functions is key and can delay launches. Examples of potentially promising non-passenger applications are shown in Figure 2.
Beyond aligning with city regulators and administrators, federal governments and aviation authorities have a major say in the future of AAM. Multiple certifications (including Type Certification, Production Certification, Airworthiness Certification) are required to operate eVTOLs commercially with the type certification typically considered as a critical milestone by major eVTOL manufacturers. The complexity here is the fact that there are three main aviation certification agencies globally representing the US (FAA), the EU (EASA) and China (CAAC). Each regulatory agency adopts a slightly different approach to the regulatory AAM framework, and certification with one agency does not necessitate automatic certification with the other two.
Let’s take the FAA as an example. Currently, VTOL certifications are reviewed and approved on an individual basis. The FAA has decided to implement a methodically phased ‘Crawl, Walk, Run’ approach to pilot the functionality of VTOLs. The roll out of each phase will be contingent on fulfilling requirements of the previous phases. The Crawl phase focuses on piloted air vehicle operations in a variety of different environments and collects data from the pilot tests to craft standardised regulations. The Walk phase will approve commercial operations of semi-autonomous air vehicles in semi-densely populated zones. Finally, the Run phase will approve commercial operations of fully autonomous air vehicles in densely populated zones. Overall, the focus of the FAA is to move from being an agency that crafts regulations based on post-accident analysis to a data-analytics driven agency that actively gathers data and corrects issues before accidents happen.
Given current developments, the question is not if but when the AAM market will materialise and how large it will become. Based on current progress on development and certification, we expect the first vehicles to be in operation around 2025/26. Highly integrated urban transportation networks and infrastructure including AAM will be ready in the mid 2030s. There are several proof points along the way. However, we need to continue seeing eVTOL OEMs make steady progress with certifications and supply chain build up. The overall AAM development progress needs to be visible and test flight results need to reinforce the relevance of this mode of transport. Commitment from established players in the aviation and automotive spaces need to remain high to enable mass rollout. Furthermore, major cities and regions need to continue to support AAM despite setbacks that are very likely to occur.
We have identified relevant use cases; the technology is moving ahead, and the regulatory framework is by and large supportive. Yet, real life is a little more complicated than the Jetsons. Going back to the cartoon, while the way the Jetsons commuted was different, their overall lifestyle was very much that of the US in the 1960s. Gender roles were well defined—Mr. Jetson would dutifully commute to office every day, etc. AAM, on the other hand, promises to be much more transformative and touches a number of value pools. These start from the aircraft and the corresponding maintenance, repair and overhaul operations, and extend to the physical (vertiports, vertiport ground handling, charging/swapping, etc.) and digital infrastructure (air traffic management, air navigations services) and operations (booking, first/last mile ground transport, piloting, general operations & administration, financing, etc.)
Rather than assuming gradual change, it is more worthwhile to understand the opportunities and risks for a company in the context of a smart city in which seamless 3D mobility is the main mode of transportation.
About the authors: Wilfried G. Aulbur is Senior Partner, Stephan Baur is Principal, Rahul Gangal is Senior Partner, and Manfred Hader is Senior Partner at Roland Berger