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‘Social Acceptance is Critical for the Success of UAM’

Arun Sivasankaran - : Feb 23, 2024 - : 11:03 pm

There will not be a ‘big bang’ increase in Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) and Urban Air Mobility (UAM) operations in a few years, but the sector is expected to come of age in the next 20 to 30 years, according to Alan Lim, Director, Alton Aviation Consulting in Singapore.

Alton Aviation was Singapore Airshow’s partner in delivering a discussion on AAM at the event. “We envision established operations with full market adoption globally in the next 20 to 30 years,” says Lim in an interview. “The timeline is expected to be sufficient for the AAM technology to achieve a state of maturity, allowing for mainstream adoption and acceptance. Initially, AAM services will likely take off in launch cities and major metropolitans, but as the technology evolves and becomes more integrated into our transportation systems, its adoption will extend well beyond these initial urban centers.”

Funding for urban air mobility (UAM) declined in 2022 after a record 2021 but picked up last year. Do you expect funding for the advanced air mobility (AAM) sector to increase in 2024?

Between 2018 and 2023, eVTOL OEMs have raised more than US$11B in capital. A record capital was raised in 2021 amidst announcements of test flights and the initiation of the first steps towards certification. However, funding has since slowed from the peak of US$5.3B, with only US$3.2B raised in 2022 and US$1.5B in 2023.

With a long path ahead toward certification and operationalization, financing remains a key area of concern for OEMs; liquidity issues could jeopardize their ability to reach their certification timelines. As some OEMs near their EIS and enter the final stages of obtaining certification, we will see an increased need for funds.

For OEMs, the potential of certification and commercialization will be key in bolstering investor confidence and securing funding. However, in terms of funding of the industry, we will likely not reach the extents of 2021 which was fueled by a combination of a low interest rate environment and hype in UAM (amidst the severely diminished commercial aviation environment).

Some of the players in the UAM sector are targeting the launch of air taxi services in the 2024-25 period. Do you think that is a realistic goal?

The launch of air taxi services in 2024-25 appears possible for some AAM vehicles, contingent upon their development and certification progress. It is anticipated that a number of these vehicles will commence service within the next two years, although initial operations are expected to be on a smaller scale. Notably, Paris is planning to trial air taxi services for passenger transport during the 2024 Olympic Games. Similarly, in APAC, EHang, having recently received its type certificate and Certificate of Airworthiness from the Civil Aviation Administration of China, is planning to launch aerial tourism and local sightseeing services using its EH216-S aircraft at the demonstration centre in Shenzhen Bao’an.

To date, while there have been many press releases describing the launch of air taxi operations in cities around the globe, we have not seen the supporting infrastructure ready for such a service. Full-scale commercialization of air taxi services will likely take more time, as operators focus on smaller scale tourism and air taxi services first. It is imperative to establish both regulatory and societal acceptance for air taxi operations, a process that necessitates substantial collaboration stakeholders and public demonstrations to showcase the safety and capabilities of UAM vehicles.

What is the biggest challenge that UAM needs to overcome before it becomes a reality? Is technology maturing fast enough to ensure safe operations within the next two years?

Social acceptance is particularly critical, as they will determine the ability of UAM to operate within populated areas, and also influence the size of the user base for such services. This is not to say that the other aspects of building out the ecosystem including vehicle certification, infrastructure build-up, and regulatory standards development are not critical. All aspects of the ecosystem need to be developed for UAM to become a reality – but social acceptance will be key to influence investors’ and regulators’ view of the industry and determine the potential to move forward.

The challenge is not particularly due to the lack of technology maturity. Multiple AAM vehicles are already in the type certification process, and we have EHang being granted both the type certificate and Certificate of Airworthiness. While regulators are still developing their own standards for UAM certification and operation, recent safety issues involving the wider aviation industry will mean that scrutiny will remain high and OEMs will be subjected to the same rigorous testing. OEMs will also be motivated to ensure a high level of safety – given that any incidents that happen in these initial stages will severely set back the industry.

Many developers of eVTOL aircraft are making progress towards certification. Has infrastructure development for advanced air mobility operations kept pace, in the Asia Pacific and other regions?

Infrastructure development for AAM is gaining significant traction around the globe. In the Asia Pacific (APAC) region, there have been continued investments and partnerships in AAM infrastructure by various stakeholders.

As early back in 2019, Skyports, a vertiport operator, collaborated with Volocopter in launching a vertiport prototype in Singapore. It has continued to make progress in the region including a collaboration with AirAsia to study air taxi infrastructure development in Malaysia. Additionally, the Japanese vertiport startup, Skyscape, recently announced plans to develop an ‘Integrated Aviation Centre’, which will be among the first vertiport facilities in the country. In South Korea, we see that Volatus Infrastructure has been partnering up with local firms in order to push ahead AAM infrastructure developments there.

However, more still has to be done. AAM infrastructure is not just about vertiports. There needs to be consideration over the “air infrastructure” – i.e., the urban air traffic management system, the rules and policies that govern AAM flights within urban areas etc.

Do you expect mainstream carriers to extensively use eVTOLs to expand existing operations? Or will the AAM sector be dominated by companies exclusively serving the sector?

While airlines have relatively defined and feasible use cases for eVTOLs to be used as airport shuttles and regional air mobility, there are many other use cases being put forward for AAM – including aerial tourism, logistics, and even medical / organ transport which will be run by other general aviation operators. This is the reason why airlines currently only make up ~30% of the firm orders that are placed – this share decreases if we expand the view to non-firm orders and options placed.

AAM operations will unlikely become a significant part of mainstream carriers’ operations in the near to medium term. Until eVTOLs are able to carry a larger number of passengers over a longer distance for short-haul regional operations, they will be consigned to be used only by a small segment of these carriers’ customer bases (i.e., most-premium passengers only).

Activity related to AAM operations are in full swing in all major regions. Is any region ahead of the others? Where do you expect operations to start first?

All major regions have shown significant progress in AAM operations. However, the initiation of operations is likely to occur first in regions that exhibit a combination of technological maturity, robust government backing, sufficient infrastructure, and favorable public perception. Regions where operations are likely to begin soon, even on a limited basis, include China, France, Italy, Korea, Japan, USA, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

It is expected that AAM flights will commence with manned operations. How soon do you expect unmanned operations to become the norm?

Manned operations have been taking the centerstage in the AAM industry. Unmanned operations require a much higher level of technology capability and complexity to develop, and remain a secondary priority for most OEMs, whose primary near-term goal is the certification of manned operations of a new class of aircraft. It will likely be in the mid to late 2030s at the earliest where we might even see any large-scale development in passenger-carrying unmanned eVTOLs.

The only exception is China, which believes in the need for unmanned operations to unlock the full potential of their ‘low altitude economy, particularly in unmanned cargo transportation. In fact, the type certification application for the first piloted eVTOL
(Aerofugia’s AE200) in China was only accepted two years after its unmanned counterpart (EHang’s EH216-S – which has already been type certified by the CAAC). Chinese leadership in autonomous driving technology is viewed as a suitable springboard for autonomous flight research. Consequently, we may witness unique dynamics evolving in each region stemming from their differing approaches to autonomous flights.

Which among the two markets is likely to grow faster – urban air mobility (UAM) or regional air mobility (RAM)?

The growth of UAM is expected to lead that of RAM in driving additional demand for several reasons In order to ensure competitive unit economics, regional route operations demand AAM aircraft to deliver higher payload-range capabilities. For eVTOLs in particular, the technology to enable higher capacity and longer range AAM aircraft remains nascent and will only be developed as a next step once the current technologies become more mature.

Moreover, RAM, especially those involving cross-border operations, will introduce additional complexities into the AAM operating model. On top of ground and air infrastructure, unified international efforts are required to align on the regulatory, safety and security frameworks that are needed to enable such operations.

As such, even when RAM takes off, we would likely see it focused on domestic operations first, before opening up to international operations as governments become clearer of the requirements needed to run RAM operations safely. It is worthwhile to note that eCTOL and eSTOL operations will be the key driving force behind RAM. These are aircraft which will still require a runway to takeoff and landing, and will not be able to operate as much in urban environments. However, eCTOL/eSTOL operations will unlikely stimulate as much new growth as eVTOL UAM operations, and will be focused on substituting demand from other modes of transport (ground, marine, and even conventional aviation).


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