Urban Aerial Mobility: Preparing for a flying future

September 16, 2020 5:40 AM

Development of UAM infra will likely have significant cost advantage over heavy-infra approaches such as roads

There is a reason why Uber chose New Delhi along with Silicon Valley (San Jose) to study the potential of air-mobility.There is a reason why Uber chose New Delhi along with Silicon Valley (San Jose) to study the potential of air-mobility.

By Kowthamraj VS

The back to the future movie series predicted flying cars becoming the norm by October 2015. The real future in 2015 did not hint at the possibility of a commercial flying car. A year later, Uber launched Uber Air and the Uber elevate conference gave us a taste of what a future with flying cars would look like.

Imagine reducing a 90-plus minute stop-and-go commute from Gurgaon to your office in central New Delhi to a mere six minutes. That future has become conventional wisdom in 2020, as hundreds of commercial companies, multiple cities, and several hundred startups are pivoting into “Urban Aerial Mobility (UAM) aka the flying cars” to capture a slice of the potential trillion-dollar market. There is a reason why Uber chose New Delhi along with Silicon Valley (San Jose) to study the potential of air-mobility.

The MoveinSynq report titled ‘Travel Time Report Q1 2019 vs Q1 2108’ states that an average Indian spends 7% of the day in commute to office averaging less than 3 minutes per kilometre.

On-demand aviation has the potential to radically improve urban mobility, giving people back the productivity lost in their daily commutes. Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to combat transportation congestion. A network of small e-VTOLs (electric- Vertical Takeoff and Landing Vehicles) will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities. Just like in e-3-wheelers, it is inevitable that India will come up with a localised solution.

The development of infrastructure to support an urban VTOL network will likely have significant cost advantages over heavy-infrastructure approaches such as roads, bridges and tunnels. Uber and other actors have proposed repurposing of the tops of parking garages. Even unused land surrounding highway interchanges could form the basis of an extensive, distributed network of “vertiports” (VTOL hubs with multiple takeoffs and landing pads, as well as charging infrastructure) or single-aircraft “vertistops” (a single VTOL pad with minimal infrastructure) atop a qualified building. As costs for traditional infrastructure options continue to increase, the lower cost and increased flexibility provided by these new approaches may provide compelling options for cities and states around the world.

Varon Vehicles Corp is a US company that chose to implement its first UAM systems in Latin America because it is faster and simpler. Felipe Varon, CEO Varon Vehicles says, “Without cutting any corners in safety and certification requirements, we can implement a much less complicated concept for airspace integration in developing countries… India, just like most countries in Latin America, is a perfect example of a part of the world where UAM can happen faster and tackle urgent needs for radical mobility solutions.”

UAM, thus, has the potential to save trillions of dollars in eliminating a fraction of new roads and fly-overs from crowding our space-starved cities and save another few hundred billion by preventing congestion and resultant productivity loss.

Though urban aviation is not going to take a sizable share out of on-road vehicle sales, they will free-up the arterial roads. It took until 2016 for someone to bet on flying cars, not because the technology to propel a car to the sky was not available, but due to the lack of cheap high-energy-density batteries. This has changed in the last five years.

The technologies that are required to make intra-city air mobility are not that different from current know-how in e-mobility or aerospace engineering. Though integrating multiple components into an aerial vehicle is relatively straightforward; the real challenge lies in creating an ecosystem encompassing infrastructure, standards, policy, and the associated sky-worthy component capabilities in the supply chain. Just like on-road e-mobility—the challenge is not building an e-VTOL, but building a compelling and desirable e-VTOL experience.

Developing, manufacturing, and deploying electric urban aerial vehicles will give Indian e-mobility value-chain a high-value sector to subsidise R&D for their on-road offerings and will create concomitant aerial economy opportunities in software, monitoring, controls, and civil-engineering. Aviation is a $1.5 trillion industry with aeroplanes, fuels, engines, and airline operators combined. Electric aviation will be India’s pathway to leap-frog half-a-century of western R&D in traditional aviation. If we play our cards right, over time, an alternative for the Boeing-Airbus duopoly can be catalysed in India, as we will eventually become the third-largest aviation market for long-haul flights.

By a series of consistent and coordinated efforts, India should earn the right to be a global hub for the urban aerial economy. It was China and not the developed countries which boast the best ease of doing business rankings that introduced electric mobility. Brazil led the world in the Bio-fuel revolution.

Changing perceptions and redefining what’s possible in Indian mobility requires indomitable will and consistency by the policymakers along with the emergence of several heroes in the private sector with sizeable risk capacity.

The author is Young Professional in NITI Aayog

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