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Anyone who’s ever been stuck in traffic knows what a pain it can be. Besides being a major schedule disruptor, sitting behind the wheel and merely inching along wastes precious time that could be better spent.

But what if we could rise above it all? What if we could take a chapter from science fiction and zip along above the fray, arriving at our destination relaxed and on time?

For the visionaries who’ve been working for years on creating such a scenario, the effective deployment of electric air taxis in urban areas is getting closer to becoming a reality.

According to a recently released report published by Allied Market Research, the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) market size was valued at $2.3 billion in 2021 and is estimated to reach $30.7 billion by 2031, growing at a CAGR of 30.2% from 2022 to 2031.

Such rapid progress is being made in this sector that two companies recently partnered to complete a “historic” Electric Vertical Aircraft (EVA) flight in New York.

In a February 14 press release, Blade Air Mobility and BETA Technologies announced the successful completion of “a historic test flight of BETA’s ALIA-250 EVA at the Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York. The flight marks the first test of a piloted EVA in the greater New York City area and is a significant milestone in the companies’ continued partnership to bring safe, quiet, and sustainable air transportation to commuter and commercial customers.”

Federal Perspectives on Urban Air Mobility (UAM)

With so much excitement being generated about UAM, we thought it’d be nice to dig into the perspectives of two federal agencies with some major skin in the game: the FAA and NASA.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

The FAA says Urban Air Mobility “envisions a safe and efficient aviation transportation system that will use highly automated aircraft that will operate and transport passengers or cargo at lower altitudes within urban and suburban areas.”

According to the FAA, UAM will be made of an ecosystem that takes several key dynamics into consideration, including:

  • The evolution and safety of the aircraft

  • The framework for operation

  • Access to airspace

  • Infrastructure development

  • Community engagement

An Urban Air Mobility Factsheet published by the FAA in November 2022 provides additional background about why there is such intense interest in UAM: “Growing cities and increased population density offer the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) an opportunity to revolutionize air transportation by making the dream of urban air mobility (UAM) a reality. Aviation is multifaceted, and the FAA’s Urban Air Mobility Program, in collaboration with NASA and stakeholders, is the next generation of airborne transportation.”

“The UAM ecosystem will expand transportation networks to include crewed and uncrewed aircraft and explore solutions that use agile infrastructure and diverse operations, as envisioned by the Info-Centric National Airspace System (NAS),” the FAA says. “The initial concept, developed in 2020, included overarching airspace management principles and assumptions, and the expected evolution of UAM operations, airspace characteristics, and the operational environment. To mature the UAM concept, air traffic requirements, policies, and procedures must be researched, reviewed, and refined.”

The project description provides additional details:

  • “UAM Concept of Operations development will focus on the existing capabilities with industry partners today, along with the architecture for crewed and uncrewed aircraft traveling within urban and metropolitan environments at lower altitudes.

  • The UAM Program will address interactions with existing Air Traffic Control (ATC), as well as the role of cooperative traffic management concepts explored in Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM).

  • Concept development will consider the introduction of new aircraft types (e.g., electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL)) with the increasing level of autonomy and the data exchanges they require.

  • Through collaboration with NASA and industry partners, the UAM Program will identify and validate critical paths to determine minimally viable operations for the near future.

  • Engineering and analysis for the UAM Program will focus on the unique traffic management requirements, procedures, airspace design, and policies for the operational environment. It will also identify services and information exchanges needed to enable collaborative, safe, and efficient incorporation of these operations in urban airspaces.

  • The operational environment and needs from industry are expected to include the transitional period where crewed UAM aircraft will operate under existing Visual and Instrument Flight Rules (VFR/IFR) and use existing ATC services for fixed-wing aircraft or existing helicopter infrastructure (e.g., routes, helipads, rules and regulations, and ATC services).

  • Engineering and analysis will also explore the future need for more tailored flight rules to provide the necessary flexibility to meet business objectives safely.

  • The UAM Airspace Management Demonstration (UAMD) will collaborate with industry partners and stakeholders to showcase and validate the concepts described in the UAM Concept of Operations version 1.0 document.

  • UAMD will also exhibit the creation and management of UAM corridors and architecture components that support information exchanges in the ecosystem.

  • This project will validate and inform the conceptual elements and engineering analysis performed.

  • UAMD will take an iterative approach to demonstrate operations and Airspace Transportation Management elements with increasing complexity in measured and controlled steps.

  • Coordination will occur between the FAA, UAM operators, Provider of Services for UAM (PSU), and public entities.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

NASA says it is “leading the nation to quickly open a new era in air travel called Urban Air Mobility, or UAM. Our vision of UAM is that of a safe and efficient air transportation system where everything from small package delivery drones to passenger-carrying air taxis is operating above populated areas.”

NASA also describes some of the dynamics contributing to the rapid progress being made in UAM.

“Thanks to a convergence of technologies–some not traditionally associated with aviation–and new business models enabled by the digital revolution, we’re now able to explore what’s required to create this new method for safely moving people and cargo in the most challenging environment – a dense city,” NASA says.

The agency also cites data from recent NASA-commissioned market studies that indicate that by 2030 “as many as 500 million flights a year for package delivery services and 750 million flights a year for air metro services could make UAM a profitable, relevant enterprise.”

NASA underscores the necessity of effective collaboration to achieve the progress needed.

“Working with the Federal Aviation Administration, other government agencies, academia, airspace operators and vehicle developers, we’ve identified the technical and bureaucratic barriers that must be overcome, including significant legal, regulatory, infrastructure and weather constraints, along with concerns about public perception related to noise, pollution and safety,” the agency says.

Advanced Air Mobility (AAM)

The FAA says Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) “builds upon the UAM concept by incorporating use cases not specific to operations in urban environments,” and cites examples such as:

  • Commercial inter-city (longer range/thin haul)

  • Cargo delivery

  • Public services

  • Private / recreational vehicles

The agency also provides additional details about AAM and air taxis.

Referring to AAM as “an umbrella term for aircraft that are likely highly automated and electric,” the FAA says these aircraft are “often referred to as air taxis or electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft.”

Underscoring its role in ensuring safety, the FAA says many AAM companies “are the designer, manufacturer, and operator, requiring them to obtain several certifications,” described as:

  • Vehicle Certification: “The FAA has the regulations in place that allow manufacturers to achieve our safety standards in innovative ways. When tailoring existing rules to a new concept, the FAA determines the certification requirements for the eVTOL’s design, production, airworthiness, and operation. Some certifications could require the FAA to issue special conditions or additional airworthiness criteria, depending on the type of project. We use the same data-driven approach when evaluating these complex systems that has created the safest aviation system in the world.”

  • Operator Certification & Framework: “Many of these new aircraft take off in helicopter mode, transition into airplane mode for flying, and then transition back to helicopter mode for landing. Accordingly, we’ll require pilots to be rated to operate powered-lift vehicles. We are working to write the standards that pilots must meet to operate aircraft that might have flying characteristics of both helicopters and airplanes.”

The FAA says that in August 2022, it “met its first milestone on time for rules (Special Federal Aviation Regulations) that will govern these operations. Several manufacturers have publicly said they anticipate no delays in certification from this approach.”

The FAA says integrating AAM into the airspace will require infrastructure development, operations, community engagement, and collaboration with global partners.

  • Infrastructure development: “We expect that initial AAM vehicles will use existing infrastructure such as helipads, routes and air traffic control services where possible. In September 2022, the FAA issued vertiport design standards to serve as the foundation to begin safely building infrastructure in this new era.”

  • Operations: “Initial operations will be much like helicopters do today. As operations increase, we will have corridors for these vehicles as well as rules for communicating with air traffic control when necessary. The FAA developed a conceptual framework for Advanced Air Mobility operations in and around urban areas. We will update it in 2023.”

  • Community Engagement: “Just like with drones, we are learning about and addressing local community concerns about AAM operations in and around metropolitan areas. For this effort, we’re engaging with state, local, and tribal governments and communities.  One of our initiatives is working with NASA on a national campaign to help communities learn about AAM. We encourage communities to get involved now, while we’re in these early phases.”

  • Global Partners: “The FAA is working with other civil aviation authorities to harmonize our AAM integration strategies. The FAA has joined the National Aviation Authorities Network, which consists of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and signed declarations of cooperation with Japan and South Korea on integrating and certifying AAM aircraft. Through these partnerships, as well as our work with European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), we’re looking to align our certification processes and standards for AAM aircraft. And we’re eager to work with other nations so we can exchange expertise and share progress with each other.”

The Race for Development

In the following video from 60 Minutes, “Flying vehicles of the future: Companies racing to develop eVTOL ‘air taxis’,” Anderson Cooper explores the nascent industry and talks to several experts—including leaders from several air taxi companies and Billy Nolen, the acting director of the FAA.

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