URBAN AIR MOBILITY (UAM)
Graham Purchase reports on news from the Commercial UAV Show held in London in November, so standby for some more drone acronyms!
Among several short talks given at the UAV Show at the ExCel Centre, one that stood out for me was actually about ground infrastructure. It was given by Duncan Walker, MD of Essex-based Skyports Ltd. Skyports have produced the first ‘Vertiport’ comprising a small building for check-in and boarding/leaving an Autonomous Air Vehicle (AAV) and for swapping the batteries. This is combined with a short ‘taxiway’ and a platform for take-off/landing, like a helipad. The modular structure was erected by a team of 150 people in only 1 week in Singapore, for the 26th Intelligence Transport World Conference, held at Marina Bay in October.
Left: Voloport showing the taxiway and take-off landing pad, right: Inside the Vertiport
Skyports had teamed up with Florian Reuter, CEO of Volocopter GmbH, to demonstrate the concept of UAM at the conference. The vertiport, named ‘Voloport’ was opened by the EC Transport Commissioner, Violeta Bulc. About 8000 people, including representatives from EASA, the CAA and NATS, visited the Voloport during the conference. There were also 2 solo demonstration flights of the ‘Volocopter’ AAV by a test pilot, seen here near the giant Sands Hotel. The vertiport structure was dismantled after the show, ready for re-use at similar events in other ‘mega-cities’.
Left: Vertiport at night, right: Over Marina Bay
Skyports is targeting other large cities, and is working to secure sites in London, Los Angeles, Melbourne and elsewhere; using, for example, the rooftops of offices, multi-storey car parks or railway stations. They are planning both passenger ‘air-taxi’ and also cargo-delivery services. To establish these services will require buy-in from politicians and detailed work with the regulators, as well as the development of Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) services. UTM is a new type of ATM needed for these large drones, which will have to be integrated with existing ATC systems. A number of companies are working on UTM, including Altitude Angel, whose ‘GuardianUTM’ system was demonstrated, in conjunction with NATS and other partners, during ‘Operation Zenith’ at Manchester Airport in November 1018 (For more details, see the RIN website News pages). For parcel delivery, Skyports envisages much smaller infrastructure, probably sited around the periphery of cities, or at airports, and there would be a variety of final delivery methods. AAVs will be much quieter than helicopters, but still 3-4 times faster than road travel, with prices similar to using a taxi. However, pubic acceptance of the technology will be key to its success.
Left: There are 18 electrically powered motors, right: Volocopter top view
The Volocopter demonstrator is a 2-seat aircraft with 18 rotors, and 3 independent batteries, and has a ballistic-parachute in case of emergency. The company is based in Bruchsal, Germany, and has plans involving its partner, Mercedes Benz, for mass production. Also, Volocopter has received a $55M investment from a Chinese company, and is working with a number of firms on developing delivery-drones
There are several other significant players in the UAM marketplace; here are some examples:
Airbus has developed 2 demonstrators, the ‘Vanhana’ single seat cargo delivery AAV with tandem tilting wings; it is capable of 100 kts with a payload of 50 kg. Their ‘CitiAirbus’ is a 4-seat flying-taxi AAV capable of 70kts with a duration of about 15 min.
Left: AirBus Vanhana delivery drone, right: CityAirbus
Not to be outdone, the Beijing Yi-Hang Creation Science & Technology Company has produced the Ehang air-taxi and the Falcon delivery & public security management (zoom & infra-red camera equipped) AAVs, in conjunction with ‘smart-city’, ‘smart-logistics’ and ‘aerial media’ solutions. The Falcon is already in trial service with DHL-Sinotrans in China! One can post an item in a large roadside box; the top of the box then slides open to allow a drone to take off and carry the package to a similar box near the delivery address, then a courier collects the package and completes the delivery. A control centre monitors the whole delivery process and drone operations, possibly involving 5G communications. A fully automated warehouse and sorting centre is also under development. Aerial Media includes the performance of most spectacular light shows involving hundreds of their ‘Egret’ drones flying in formation. (Videos are available on the Ehang website).
Left: Ehang air-taxi, right: Ehang Falcon DHL
Back in the UK, Bristol-based Vertical Aerospace is developing a passenger-carrying AAV, called Seraph. The Seraph prototype had its maiden flight at Cotswold Airport (Kemble) in October, and it is due to be operational by 2022.
Vertical Aerospace SERAPH
These much-hyped personal air-taxis may grab the headlines but the industry will have to overcome huge regulatory obstacles which will delay their introduction, eg in UK. However, they will be much easier to introduce in more sparsely populated and deregulated places, perhaps like Dubai or parts of the US and Australia. Meanwhile, global parcel delivery companies are lobbying hard for permission to start operations in out-of-town locations and are already calling for access to UK airspace. This was discussed at a recent GATCO-BALPA conference, where DfT and CAA officials made it clear that we can expect the lowest levels of, initially controlled, airspace to be set aside for the use of drones, within a few years. To enable the drones/AAVs to detect and avoid other traffic, both the drones and existing conventional aircraft are likely to be required to continuously transmit their GNSS-derived position using Automated Dependent Surveillance (ADS-B) technology. The AAVs will have to ‘file’ their flight plans and operate under UTM control.
On the domestic front, please note that all drones over 250 grams now have to be registered annually with the CAA, and the owners have to undertake an online test of their knowledge of drone operating laws. Also, as the final picture demonstrates, it seems that the advent of drone add-ons, or perhaps replacements for, delivery vans are closer than most people think!
UPS Van & Drone