City planners have been pushing back on the idea of VTOL, air taxies and urban air mobility in general. There is a general feeling of fear when this new, and destined technology is discussed.
Over the next 30 years, aviation will change in more fundamental ways than it has since Kitty Hawk. That sounds like a radical statement, but it is true when you consider the impact of new aerospace technologies that are currently being worked on.
Current aviation transportation technologies are all based on fossil fuels and hasn’t seen movement since the development of the jet engine. There are two basic types of aviation fuels – Jet A and Avgas. Jet A is like a highly filtered form of kerosene with various additives, usually to prevent icing. Avgas is leaded gasoline, 100LL being the most common. Even though the “LL” stands for low-lead” it is still heavily leaded.
The future is electrically-powered aircraft, but until the energy density of batteries compare to that of fossil fuels, that future may be far off. Battery powered cars are a lot easier to engineer because the car is always resting on the ground, an aircraft must pull itself, and it’s passengers, and cargo up to operational altitude, transit the distance to the destination, land and still have a 45 minute safety reserve as required by the FAA. There will need to be a breathtaking breakthrough in battery tech before it becomes feasible for use in general aviation.
For aviation, the answer might not be batteries at all. Capacitors are rapidly increasing their energy density when compared to lithium ion. “Super-capacitors” have a lot of benefits over lithium-ion batteries, chiefly rapid charging. They also feature longer lifecycles, their manufacture is more environmentally friendly and theoretically they would be cheaper. That said, they will be probably be seen in automotive use cases before they would appear in aircraft.
A great stop-gap to electrify the current aircraft fleet is hydrogen fuel cells. The technology already exists for use in aircraft. You only need a hydrogen tank, fuel cell and electric motor. The typical aircraft would shed pounds, gain useful load and have a much more extended range due to hydrogen having more energy density than fossil fuels.
Naysayers and Prophets of Doom™ rally against automation in all of its forms. There is no way around the simple logical conclusion that automation will continue to grow until all human toil is eliminated. White collar and blue collar jobs will be changed in ways we cannot currently fathom. Automation will touch every single part of human society and culture; emergency services, transportation and logistics will be the first to feel these effects. Call centers for emergency services can be greatly augmented by the use of AI. Autonomous aviation is an easier problem to solve than automated driving.
With automobiles, the hazards are mind-bendingly numerous – pedestrians, animals, other cars, drunk drivers, drivers that are texting, drivers that are running red lights – essentially other drivers. Aviation has had a set of well-behaved rules and procedures for operation of aircraft in a complex, shared airspace. And on top of that, there is a robust training program and many levels of certifications and endorsements to access that airspace. So it is a no-brainer that aircraft will probably achieve level 5 automation before ground transportation will.
Aviation has been at Level 3 since the 50s with radio navigation and autopilot. I remember a pilot, from the 1970s, that would fly his Beechcraft Bonanza cross country using VOR as a navigation guide. He would tune his radios to fly toward a VOR navigation station and then set the autopilot. He would then SLEEP until he got to the VOR. When the Bonanza would fly over the VOR, the autopilot would rock the wings of the aircraft in an attempt to stay on the VOR radial. The closer to the VOR, the more the wings would rock and at some point he would wake up and reset the autopilot for another VOR and back to sleep he would go. And yes, this was illegal and wholly ill-advised, but yet he had the tools to do it.
The FAA has already issued rules for the certification of drone pilots (FAR Part 107) and I feel logistics will be the first part of the aviation industry to be automated. In 2013, Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, declared his intentions to design, build and deploy a drone delivery program for the internet giant. UPS, FedEx and DHL have all shown signs of interest in autonomous logistics but I am sure their interest is on a much larger scale than the home delivery functionality Amazon is focused on.
Autonomous passenger flight is a much more problematic issue. Uber seems to be leading the way in land-based urban mobility for passenger service. They have a program in Pennsylvania experimenting with self-driving cars and just last year Uber announced their “elevate” plans for flying cars. Insuring passenger safety during automated flights is the FAA’s primary function. Will Part 135 be greatly changed or will a new regulation part be published to handle all the facets of autonomous flight? Time and technology will tell.
As the FAA weighs and ponders autonomous flight and how it will integrate with the current airspace system, municipalities are wondering how all this will fit with their current infrastructure. Some plans I have seen range from building rooftops airports (Roofports? Skyports?) to complex and expensive infrastructure solutions that included purpose-built terminals and waystations. The key to a successful implementation of urban mobility will require inexpensive and non-invasive solutions. With any journey, the last 5% of the journey to the destination can be the most expensive and difficult to implement.
Applying first principles to the problem can yield some pretty simple solutions.
The cheapest and most most easily adaptable idea is to use traffic circles (or roundabouts if you are not in the US) for VTOL landing pads. Traffic circles are already in place all around the country, usually in neighborhoods and where none exist, common intersections can easily converted to a traffic circle with an integrated VTOL landing pad in the middle. (see featured image above).
Autonomous VTOL air taxis and manned VTOL aircraft can utilize these pads placed in neighborhoods. VTOL ambulances can access patients much more quickly than if they have to use trucks trying to navigate road traffic. Trips to and from a local airport for a commercial flight will be much more manageable with a VTOL trip from the airport to within a block or two from your home.
Autonomous transportation is coming and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Within 30 years, the use of our national airspace will be unrecognizable when compared to what it is today. But fear shouldn’t win out, we can make these changes inexpensively, improve the quality of life for everyone, clean up the environment and push humanity forwarded. And that is always a good thing.