Are You Ready To Embrace Emerging Digital Aviation?

The next time you are in a traffic jam, look up. That space above you could one day be used for a new form of transport. To understand this futuristic form of transport, we need to go back in time. Some of us are old enough to remember ‘The Jetsons’, and while this is somewhat a very rudimentary analogy, it does quick capture the meaning and the imagination of this emerging technology, known as Advanced Air Mobility (AAM).

AAM seeks to transform travel as we know it, reduce travel times, ease congestion and importantly, is one aviation industry response to sustainability outcomes.

In the developed world, we have no shortage of transport options, so why do we need another?
Due to my job I am often heading to the airport for another flight to someone in the country, and occasionally overseas, a journey that takes anywhere from 50 to 80 minutes, depending on the traffic. The uncertainty in timing, manoeuvring around drivers who feel the need to drive 10-20 km/h under the speed limit, and having to sudden brake for those that cut into your safety zone, all adds to the stress of the day. It’s not that I don’t have alternatives. I could catch the train. Greater certainty in schedule for sure, but will add at least another 30 minutes to the travel time. A taxi or ride share works too, but once again I will be in the same traffic and paying a lot more for the privilege. And each of these modes of transport has there varying degrees of exhaust emissions.

For the six or more months I’ve had the privilege of engaging with experts in the emerging technology of AAM; although it’s really an emerging industry ecosystem, as I will explain.

The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) refers to AAM as “emerging aviation technologies, such as electronic vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOL) and other uncrewed or automated aircraft, to move people and cargo”. It also recognises AAM as ‘emerging digital aviation’, which is not surprising as not only will each part of the ecosystem be collecting, analysing and acting on data, but each part relies on the exchange of data and integration with each other part.

So what are the parts of the ecosystem?
Air vehicle: Perhaps the most prominent part of the ecosystem is the electric powered vehicle with multiple propellers, some providing lift, while others forward motion. There are reports that there well over 100 vehicles in various phases of design and prototyping. While initial vehicles will be piloted, the longer term objective is autonomous vehicles. Battery technology is one of the main determining factors for range. Airworthiness regulators play a key role here in providing Type Certification. Some OEMs are aiming for certification by 2025/26.

Supply Chain and Maintenance: Just like any vehicle, it must be maintained and parts readily available. A new challenge though, is that these vehicles have significant electrical systems for the electric motors. Experience in low voltage aircraft systems will not be sufficient.

Air traffic management: Digital services will be key to ensuring the safe operation and integration of air vehicles in populated areas while also not being a threat to traditional forms of air transportation. Routes will need to be carefully selected based on passenger demand, safety and community acceptance. Another Federal Government department, Air Services Australia, is the key authority here.

Flight Operations: Even with autonomous vehicles, the services will not happen by themselves. Initially there will be pilots, while flights need to be scheduled, routes planned, electricity produced and supplied, and someone needs to have ownership of the customer experience.

Digital services will be the key to ensuring the safe operation and integration of air vehicles in populated areas while also not being a threat to traditional forms of air transportation

Infrastructure: Naturally, the vehicles must land somewhere. Specially designed and appropriately located vertiports to cater for a range of vehicle design and throughput of passengers are required. These are not necessarily the same as a helipad, which in many cases may be too small. And don’t expect the vehicle to land just anywhere. This will involve a coordinated approach by Local, State and Federal Government departments, working closely with industry.

Customer experience: Customers may include emergency services, tourism operators, transport companies, high wealth individuals and the general travelling public. I anticipate the customer interface will be similar to ground based ride share companies, ie through an app on a smart device. With increased uptake, cost per passenger will decrease over time.

Social licence: Will the public be tolerant of such vehicles flying overhead both in terms of sight and sound? Even with very low decibels, frequency, duration and time of day can all affect acceptance by third parties; whether issues are real or perceived.

Prominence of Startups: The AAM industry consists of a significant number of startups. I suggest we are still on the initial upwards climb on the entrepreneurial curve, after which there will be market consolidation.

Funding: In Australia AAM will benefit from Government funding and venture capital. Unfortunately, the latter drives a lot of marketing, which gives the impression that progress is more advanced than what it actually is.Some companies are investing their own funds into AAM vehicle development. However, funding is also required to support the other elements of the ecosystem.

Interdependencies: Development of each element of the AAM ecosystem in parallel is essential for successful localisation of its operation. For example, a Type Certificated air vehicle cannot fly if there is no air traffic management system in place or vertiports to land on.

Reliance on managing big data: The future of the AAM ecosystem will be heavily dependent on big data. The ecosystem consists of a system of systems, with each needing to interact for safe and efficient operations and a transportation experience that not only results in repeat customers but a rapidly growing customer base.

In closing, AAM represents a great opportunity for society and industry, particularly around big data, but as an individual, are you ready to embrace this emerging aviation technology?