Posted October 30, 2023

Does advanced air mobility equal Aviation 3.0 – a true game-changer?

By Henning Dransfeld

The business of making predictions gets exciting when fiction: something that appears first in popular culture becomes reality later on. A perfect example is the typical futuristic picture of the 1960s, and the TV show “The Jetsons,” portraying people traveling through the air in bubbles that take off and land vertically, and rely on unexplained propulsion systems.
Until recently, the vision of people flying in bubbles was dismissed as fiction. But technology has advanced, as has urban-area traffic density, making the vision of people travelling in autonomous vertically starting and landing vehicles with noiseless and emission-free propulsion more realistic, and probable than ever. Startups are rushing to make the vision real.

But how real will it be? If only a fraction of the many startups in this space succeeds, the aviation industry will face a dramatic shift. New concept EV flight vehicles could dramatically change the world of aviation.

Electric and vertically landing aircraft are referred to as Advanced Air Mobility (AAM). AAM is defined by the Advanced Aviation Infrastructure Modernization Act, as an “air transportation system that transports individuals and property between points using aircraft, such as remotely piloted, autonomous, or vertical take-off and landing aircraft, including those powered by electric or hybrid-driven propulsion, in both controlled and uncontrolled airspace.”

A second term often deployed in combination with AAM is Aviation 3.0, standing for the next big wave. Industry observers and experts expect a transformation similar to what happened with Aviation 1.0, which was defined by humans first taking to the air successfully in the beginning of the 20th century. Think Wright brothers. Aviation 2.0 was shaped by the arrival of the jet engine in the 1950s and 1960s, redefining long-haul air travel by reducing the time to reach all global destinations to less than a day.

Aviation 3.0 is approaching the runway and ready for take-off

Here are major factors influencing our move toward flying bubbles:

1. Society: Increasing pressure for sustainable travel options. Global air traffic contributes greatly to CO2 emissions and is a high priority to address. Green politicians in Europe are already calling for traditional air travel to be limited or banned.

2. Demand: There is increased demand for mid-range air travel. Traditional air travel, namely planes, cannot compete for mid-range travel with the road or rail on price. Many second-tier airports built for smaller planes are financially struggling. However, increasing demand in developing countries and decaying transport systems and roads in developed countries have put a spotlight on delays by train or traffic jams by car. All over the world, demand for mid-range travel options in segments that cannot be covered by traditional helicopters on price is rising quickly.

3. Supply: Abundant competition and capital lead to fast innovation. Advanced aerospace mobility has become a competitive space in a very short time. There is a widespread pioneering spirit coupled with capital being pumped into a plethora of innovative startups for battery powered, aerospace mobility and autonomous flight. Approximately 200 companies are exploring new aviation technology concepts based on EV batteries, hydro power and vertical take off for small and mid-sized aircraft aimed at small to mid-range air travel.

But before the take off for Aviation 3.0, roadblocks must be removed.

Aviation 3.0 is designed to operate at a different scale in volumes of “planes” than current long-distance air travel. How quickly Aviation 3.0 will take to the skies depends on removing roadblocks that hinder its development. Despite the gold rush, advanced aerospace mobility will only take off if critical issues including technology, infrastructure, regulation, capacity, demand and the correct price points come together. With Aviation 3.0, there is a great cocktail brewing, but not all the ingredients are ready yet:

1. Technology: We need better batteries. Current test flights go up to 250 mph for the Lilium Jet and 200 mph for rotor-based aero vehicles such as the one from electric ride-sharing company Joby Aviation. Joby aircraft can carry up to four passengers and have a range of up to 100 miles plus energy reserves. Commercial forward-looking carrier agreements signed today demand the ability to carry more passengers, achieve higher speed and fly longer. To do this, battery power must continue to improve. Advanced aerospace OEMs are working on it. Some are not content to trust that Moore’s Law will apply to EV batteries as it does to semiconductors and have actively invested money and resources to support battery start-ups, hoping to accelerate this development.

2. Infrastructure: Second-tier airports offer abundant capacity for vertical take-off and landing. Since most advanced air mobility concepts involve vertical take-offs, there is less need for runways. Capacity is also widely available as many second-tier airports suffer financially due to low traffic. Many have been abandoned but could easily be reactivated for vertical take-off and landing. More than 5,000 airports in the US, alone, have abundant capacity.

3. Safety: Can air traffic control handle hundreds of air EVs operating at different heights and speeds? The classic control tower cannot work for a situation where vehicles with different profiles and performance move through the air in droves without coordinated and fine-tuned take-off and landing slots. Adding to the complexity is that commercial EVs are not far from achieving autonomous take-off and landing.

NASA is developing new concepts for more decentralized operators providing distributed air traffic control and receivers on the ground to monitor positions as well as shared cloud networks. However, massive hurdles remain, especially in cities. The new schemes must work safely alongside existing system that control conventional aircraft.

4. Business: Will consumers embrace it? Unmanned flight has accompanied advanced aerospace mobility from day one. In fact, prototypes are tested via remote control before people are allowed to enter the vehicle. One of the earliest attempts at manned flight is the one by Pipistrel which runs on a classic plane fitted with a battery. Pipistrel even started training new pilots on its EV planes and found the ramp up towards qualification much easier and quicker than on traditional planes.

Other startups have discovered that people are willing to try being flown around in a drone that is steered remotely. But with safety coming first, full autonomous flight is still years away. It is certainly not feasible before we even see fully autonomous cars admitted to the road.

The vision remains, that one day, you get in the vehicle, give the destination, and get flown there without any physical or remote pilot at all.

5. Business: Can we achieve scale to bring manufacturing costs down and to democratize mid-range air travel? Once fully certified, EV planes are less complex to manufacture and could become small-series volume products. Scaled production is an intentional part of the business case. An example is Lilium, the advanced startup from Germany. Lilium offers a differentiated advanced aerospace mobility concept based on EV jet engine propulsion. The company hired executives from aviation companies, including Airbus and Rolls Royce, in addition to management from BMW. Every Airbus 340 is a project. In contrast, luxury cars are a mixture of project-based manufacturing and small-series repetitive manufacturing.

Lilium has acquired a mixed skillset to combine aviation expertise with know-how for a larger-scale production in line with the automotive industry. Joby, an American pioneer, has deepened its partnership with Uber and acquired Uber Elevate, a software to enable aerial ridesharing connected to regulators, real-estate developers and technology companies that share the vision of shared future air travel.

Success belongs to the prepared. The aviation industry is seeing its biggest shift since the introduction of the jet engine in the 1960s. Advanced aerospace mobility heralds the promise of creative destruction, but also significant growth for mid-distance travel via the air. The industry has already become competitive, even though there are still technical and regulatory hurdles to leap. Aviation 3.0 has all the ingredients to become an exciting space of vivid innovation and commercial launches in the coming years.

Henning Dransfeld at Infor

Dr. Henning Dransfeld is director of strategy & industry solutions at Infor.