Industry still seeks ‘definitive answers’ for urban air market

Industry still seeks ‘definitive answers’ for urban air market

From 'Hype Cycles' to renaming an emerging sector, GUAS speaker Clive Lewis, Managing Partner of Achieving the Difference, says there are still many challenges on the path to developing the urban air market but, with effort, they can be overcome.

Industry still seeks ‘definitive answers’ for urban air market


Clive Lewis is just one of the speakers at GUAS this week, exploring the unknowns around how the urban air market will develop.

“There are numerous reports around the urban air market and its difficult for those considering investment to know which to believe,” explains Lewis.

“This is an emerging market – because it does not exist yet, we can only predict and use forecasts, and cannot be certain of what’s going to happen.”

Lewis says the development of the industry will happen based on product demand, although manufacturers, operators and regulators do have access to some data which can be used to help understand how product and demand will unfold.

He gave the example of on-demand, online helicopter ride-sharing service, Voom, which operates in Sao Paulo in Brazil. “It gives us an idea of market demand and price point,” he said. “For a helicopter ride right into town costs somewhere in the region of $300-$1,500, so it’s not a mass market product but it is a point on the price-demand curve.”

Sector is at early stage of ‘Hype Cycle’

Lewis referenced the global research and advisory consultancy Garnter’s ‘Hype Cycle’ which can be used to evaluate where the new technological innovations currently stand.

He said the industry has gone through the first stage: the ‘Innovation Trigger’ which includes early proof of concept stories and media interest. This stage precedes the existence of usable products and commercial viability.

Lewis said the industry is approaching the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ already with early working examples of technology, in fixed and rotary wing aircraft.

The third stage is described as the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ where the industry gains a deeper understanding of the challenges and barriers to implementation. Lewis prefers to see it as a “Dawn of realism”. At this stage, it is inevitable that some experimental programs will turn out be to no more than, well, ‘experimental’. A consolidation of the market will follow with investments only backing products that satisfy early adopters.

Lewis said the last two stages should see the industry work towards a greater understanding of product demand and how it can be used to disrupt passenger transport. ‘The Slope of Enlightenment’ stage will see more successful examples as benefits to the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood.

The final stage of the model is the ‘Plateau of Productivity’, where mainstream adoption of the technology starts to take off and market viability is more clearly defined.

Time to rethink the ‘urban air mobility’ label

Lewis said some of the first UAM models were likely to enter small scale service between 2030 and 2035. However, the sector most likely to adopt electric or hybrid-electric propulsion first is regional and commuter aircraft. The popular sci-fi scenario of people having a flying car parked up on the drive is “a long way off, even if it ever happens”. He said the ‘urban air’ tag could be confusing as the most likely sector to adopt electric or hybrid-electric propulsion first is the sub-regional market is not urban at all.

Cross country and regional flights by fixed wing aircraft will be able to operate from existing airports with adaptions to the airport energy sources. They will be able to operate on scheduled thin routes and provide charter and on demand services. There is demand already there.”

Lewis said, on this basis, the label ‘urban air mobility’ was due for a rethink: “Urban air mobility is just one of these segments – it perhaps should be relabelled as ‘future air mobility’ to cover all bases.”

'Realisation will be a question of time'

“Although the demand for these new modes of air transport may exist, their realisation will meet challenges – but how these things are revealed will be a question of time

Current legislative restrictions mean that around city urban air vehicles, such as flying taxis could be one of the last sectors to appear. “Around the city, we are a long way off. Point-to-point travel will require multiple landing points. As an example of a barrier to this, London Boroughs’ planning policy permits no new heliports. For the true potential and scale of intra-urban air transport to be achieved, autonomous flight is required and achieving this in way that is socially and regulatory acceptable is some way off.” 

Other challenges such as battery capacity and the effect of weather conditions on smaller craft will affect which market segments emerge first. Social acceptance may also be a barrier with public asking how the vehicles will be used and who they will serve. As the number of UAM vehicles increases, grid capacity will also need to be addressed.

“There are also questions over security - for autonomous vehicles, security systems would need to be very robust and will air traffic control management work with non piloted vehicles?” 

Lewis said that manufacturing would be less of a barrier to entry because the market sits “between aerospace and automotive.

Clive Lewis is facilitating discussions on the market, investment and challenges of infrastructure and vehicles within the sector at GUAS. He is currently working with ADS on a thought-provoking market paper to be published later this year.

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