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Advanced Air Mobility is Coming. Are We Ready?

Posted: November 9, 2022

Guest Post by Gaël Le Bris, C.M., P.E., Senior Aviation Planner & Senior Technical Principal with WSP USA

Advanced air mobility (AAM) is a new way to travel by air using electric aircraft with, for most of them, vertical and short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) capabilities. AAM should provide point-to-point, on-demand services for both passengers and cargo within five years. Enabled by innovation in aircraft engineering and automation, powered by greener electric and hybrid propulsion systems (EHPS), a new generation of aerial vehicles is on the horizon, and they have a lot to promise. Indeed, advanced electric aircraft have the potential of making air transportation more affordable and socially acceptable, thanks to their quieter propulsion systems and lower operating costs.

While several prototypes are already flying, and over 100 original aircraft design projects are ongoing, many challenges are ahead and need to be addressed before ordering our ride on board of an electric VTOL aircraft from our smartphone becomes a common feature of our life. First, the airworthiness certification framework for these innovative aerial vehicles and their components is still emerging. However, while roadblocks still exist, major aviation authorities have defined their approach to certification, and they are in the process of developing the much-needed standards and regulations. Then, there is a whole ecosystem of flight operators and service providers to create. On this matter agreements between OEMs, flight operators, and fixed-base operators (FBOs) have been raining over the past few months. Next step: the aircraft need to materialize, and the aviation industry needs to train the future workforce that will operate and maintain them.

Last, but not the least, AAM is not just about aerospace technology. The infrastructure needs to be created, in the air – with adequate airspace and procedures – and on the ground – to accommodate AAM operations at existing airports, create new aviation facilities as needed, and implement supply chains for battery and hydrogen. In the urban environment, electric VTOL aircraft will operate from compact facilities for eVTOLs called vertiports. Some will reutilize existing heliport assets, but many will be created from scratch on top of high-rise building or parking garages. The latter are also good candidate for hosting future hubs for connected and automated vehicles, paving the way to a new world of air-ground Intermodality. Smaller airports might be leveraged as well to expand these services toward and between communities. With usually shorter legs and smaller volumes to transport, regional aviation and cargo feeder operations are good potential use cases for electric aircraft.

A key to successful implementation is equity and inclusion. AAM operators cannot expect to utilize local resources and overfly communities without delivering on these important topics, as well as providing safeguard regarding noise levels and ground traffic. Users must be engaged as well to assist in shaping transportation landscapes that address their needs. Communities hosting the AAM infrastructure should benefit from it, including from an education and workforce development standpoint. Rethinking transportation plans and Intermodality also provides an opportunity to reset the conversation on mobility accessibility with underserved communities. Guidance for assisting airports and their stakeholders with the planning and community involvement aspects is already on its way with, for instance, the ACRP Research Reports 236 and 243 of the Transportation Research Board (TRB).

Technical standards will play an important role in the emergence of advanced air mobility. SAE International is deeply involved in this journey. For instance, the E-40 Electrified Propulsion Committee has released this summer two standards to advance electric propulsion for aviation. ARP8676 - Nomenclature & Definitions for Electrified Propulsion Aircraft aims to establish a common language on this new field of engineering. It provides domain, new technologies, and new architectures that describe electrified propulsion aircraft to reach a common interpretation. AIR8678 - Architecture Examples for Electrified Propulsion Aircraft categorizes electrified propulsion architectures and includes relevant examples. Further opportunities exist to expand standardization and guidance to new fields. For instance, the E-33A Aeroengine Hazard Zones Committee is currently working on the first ever standard document on aircraft jet blast hazard at airports. Future work within E-33 could include a similar effort on VTOL rotor downwash and outwash.

The engineering innovations that will enable AAM are already a technical reality. While there is still uncertainty regarding the ultimate size of the market, AAM is on track to becoming a commercial and operational reality. Operational trials could start as soon as this year, and it is expected that this new domain of aviation takes off by 2025. Are you ready for ordering your next ride in electric VTOL?

Gaël Le Bris, C.M., P.E. is a Senior Aviation Planner & Senior Technical Principal with WSP USA. He supervises aviation system and airport planning projects, and provides expertise in aviation engineering, operations, and safety in the U.S. and abroad. He is a member of the SAE International E-33A and E-40 committees. Mr. Le Bris and his team have been at the forefront of advanced air mobility, conducting several innovative research efforts and practical implementation projects across the nation. Mr. Le Bris holds master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and economics from the National University of Civil Aviation (ENAC) (Toulouse, France) and in airport development and management from the Florida Institute of Technology (Melbourne, FL).