Flying Cars & Urban Air Mobility

By Scott Spangler on August 26th, 2019

AV2-67It’s tempting to forge a synonymous connection between flying cars and urban air mobility (UAM). That would be unfair because, for a number of reasons, the latter has a viable future where entrepreneurs have unsuccessfully been developing, promoting, and trying to sell the former for more than 70 years.

Many of them have appeared and disappeared from aviation’s grand stage in Oshkosh over the past half century. Certainly, each new iteration of flying car promised improvements over those that preceded it, but nothing has matched the rapid technological long jump better than urban air mobility.

If you doubt this, look at the tent above, which sits at the apex of the Aviation Gateway Park at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. The attached drone cage is still there, giving the curious a hands-on opportunity to pilot a quadcopter through a 3D obstacle course, but the drone merchants that once packed the tent are long gone because the technology they introduced as already morphed into urban air mobility vehicles that have filled their exhibit footprints.

Visually, wheels are the biggest difference between the two. By definition, a car must have them. Most of the urban air mobility vehicles I’ve seen so far have skids, perfect for vertical takeoff and landers. But the differences that separate potential success from almost unavoidable failure are not as clearly seen. Let’s start with…

Mission Capabilities

Because they must operate in disparate realms—the National Airspace System and the interconnected web of Interstates, US Highways, County Roads, and paved and unpaved residential streets—flying cars must multitask. Studies of machines and humans have clearly demonstrated that multitasking is the ability to do several things inefficiently compared to something or someone dedicated to a single task.

Urban air mobility defines that single task. Instead of traversing the diverse expanse of American airspace and roadways, UAM vehicles are designed to transport a fixed number of people between fixed and predetermined points within the confines of a metropolitan area. And, as explained by those pursuing urban air mobility, each of these fixed points will be purposely designed and built to efficiently meet the vehicles’ needs.

AV2-77At its outdoor display, Airbus exhibited its Vahana, a self-piloted, zero emission electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) technology demonstrator. One of two Airbus Urban Mobility eVTOL demonstrators, the sign said it has made 80 full-scale flights at more than 100 mph.

Economic Viability

Not to be obvious, but we all know that anything connected to aviation is expensive. From the start, flying cars have always targeted individual customers. That was a more realistic customer pool in middle of the 20th century, when the middle class was more robust. But today, as the general aviation production and billing numbers make clear, most new airplanes (and flying cars) are well beyond the economic reach of 99 percent of Americans.

The economic reality of modern American life has also brought forth cultural and social changes. The newest members of the workforce are starting their careers while dragging an anchor of student debt. And many of them can only find a job in or around a city, which imposes a higher cost of living.

On the plus side, in a city, they don’t need the car they can’t afford in the first place, a reality that challenges the futures of automakers. When they need transportation some distance they cannot walk, they hail a ride from services like Uber and Lyft. That companies such are these are interested and investing in urban air mobility should surprise no one. And, because the UAM vehicles are essential to their planned operations, their purchase price is factored into their cost of doing business.

Certification Challenges

Earning one’s driver’s license at 16 used to be an eagerly anticipated rite of passage. The reasons for this distill into need, expense, and personal priorities. Now combine this reality with the requirement that the operator of a flying car also needs a pilot’s license. At best guess, today that will cost you more than $10,000 and take maybe six months or more.

But the operators are not the only participants needing certification. A number of flying cars have earned FAA airworthiness certificates, so they have this requirement addressed. For urban air mobility vehicles, it seems a question, but one that is not insurmountable. But I’ll wager that the Boeing 737 Max grounding will not make it any easier to certify the software that flies these computerized fly-by-wire UAM vehicles.

AV1-2The regulatory framework for certification of the UAM pilots and their employers operations already exist in Part 61 and the air taxi regulations compiled in Part 135. And NASA is already working on urban air mobility ATC systems. Things will get interesting, however, when automation replaces the UAM pilots.

Scoff if you will, but given the velocity at which the technology of urban air mobility has advanced, that day will dawn sooner than many may expect. In the waning days of AirVenture 2019, Opener announced that it was donating its BlackFly eVTOL to the EAA Aviation Museum. Opener introduced the BlackFly at AirVenture 2018. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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4 Responses to “Flying Cars & Urban Air Mobility”

  1. Flying Cars & Urban Air Mobility | Jetwhine.com – A Proper Pint Says:

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  2. Gary Vermaak Says:

    Great article Scott. From Waldo Waterman’s 1937 Arrowbile to the Aeromobile, Pal-V and Terrafugia, true flying cars are a great recreational vehicle and definately an alternative to the latest Ferrari for those who can afford to indulge.

  3. Joseph Says:

    “…that day will dawn sooner than many may expect.”

    Indeed. I also think that the technology advancement will have ramifications for cargo airlines… no need to have 2 pilots in the cockpit.

  4. Flying Cars & Urban Air Mobility – Aerospace News Crunched Says:

    […] FAA, Flight Training, Urban Air Mobility. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 […]

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