By Scott Simmie
Ever been to a *really* big airshow?
The two best-known take place in the UK and France on alternating years. One is the Farnborough International Airshow (been there twice), and the Paris Airshow (Salon du Bourget). From the biggest passenger-carrying jets in the world down to the tiniest fastener, these massive events include every element in the aerospace supply chain (and then some). From Airbus to Rolls Royce, in-flight entertainment systems to military-spec rivets, you’ll find them there.
One of the other major global events is the Dubai Airshow. With more than 1400 exhibitors and 180+ aircraft on flying or static display, it’s also a must-attend.
This year’s event took place November 13-17, and one of the key themes was the rapidly approaching era of Advanced Air Mobility. That’s the world where transformative and sustainable aircraft (including air taxis) will play a role in transporting goods and people both within major cities and to smaller communities not currently served by traditional aviation. Many if not most of these new aircraft are being designed for eventual autonomous operation.
Canada, of course, has a stake in this new world. In fact, we recently wrote about the purchase by Vancouver’s Helijet of an eVTOL aircraft (a BETA Technologies ALIA 250) for crewed operations in British Columbia. So we were pleased to see that the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium (CAAM) attended – and presented at – the Dubai Airshow.
Formed in 2019, CAAM is the national voice representing Advanced Air Mobility in Canada. With 70+ members spanning industry, government, academia and associations, CAAM plays a crucial role in this emerging sector. Its stated vision is to create “A unified national strategy for Zero-Emission Advanced Air Mobility with regional implementation in Canada.” And its mission?
“To build an ecosystem of national collaboration in creating and operating a sustainable, equitable and profitable Advanced Air Mobility industry in Canada.”
CAAM is led by Executive Director JR Hammond, who represented the organization – and by extension, Canada – at the Dubai Airshow. We asked him for his own short definition of AAM:
“It changes our concept of how we move people, goods and resources across our cities and regions. With these new aircraft we no longer are constrained to just railways, marine or ground transportation,” he says.
Dubai was Hammond’s first international air show – and it left quite an impression.
“We were blown away not only by the representation of Advanced Air Mobility in the RPAS sector, but how leading organizations globally – Asia, North America and Europe – brought aircraft and technology to the Middle East to showcase. This bubbling of activity globally is only expediting our operational pathways.”
Below: The Archer Aviation Midnight, an electric AAM vehicle capable of flying 160 kilometres (100 miles). The aircraft has been optimized for shorter flights of roughly 32 km (20 miles) with a charge time between flights of just 12 minutes.
The spark for the trip came from CAAM’s national board, says Hammond. It suggested to the executive team it would be worthwhile for the organization to have a greater presence at global gatherings – and specifically at air shows.
While a lot of AAM attention focuses on the impressive emerging aircraft technology, Hammond says there are a number of pillars that must be aligned for Advanced Air Mobility to truly take flight. Obviously, there’s the Uncrewed Traffic Management aspect – the safe integration of pilotless aircraft into traditional airspace.
But there are many other challenges CAAM has been exploring and believes are integral to the future success of AAM.
“There’s a lot of other pillars that countries and different delegations are not focusing on – like the insurance industry, or the cyber security aspect of communication. So we were tasked by the board to showcase Canada – how we can bring all of these different pillars to the global scale. A lot of these nations are not doing this and they’re seeing the challenges.
“The great example given is United Arab Emirates, which arguably is one of the leaders in AAM with their Drone Up operations… They have not focused on how they’re going to integrate this into conventional airspace, how they’re going to bring this on with different telecommunication providers and insurance providers. That’s what we’re focusing on right now and they were learning a lot from us.”
Below: JR Hammond (holding microphone) onstage during one of two sessions where he was a panelist. The first was “Pathway to eVTOL commercialisation” and the second was “Advanced aerial cargo delivery advancements.”
There’s a lot of work ahead.
Obviously, there’s the development, validation and certification of aircraft. Though there are some full-scale designs now operational (such as the EHang EH216-S, which was certified in October by the Civil Aviation Administration of China), many companies are still working with scale models or Minimum Viable Products. Certification through agencies like the FAA is, by necessity, a methodical and demanding process that takes years.
There’s also the question of how to safely integrate these new vehicles into airspace currently used by traditional aviation. Will there be specific low-level flight corridors set aside for smaller AAM aircraft/RPAS in urban settings? (Mostly likely yes, and almost certainly in Canada and the US. In fact, InDro is involved in some of the research and test flights for this).
Will there be rules around where and how many Vertiports (takeoff and landing sites for eVTOL aircraft) can be established in cities? Will certain use-cases, such as urgent medical deliveries, take priority in the early phase of adoption to build public acceptance? What role in standards and operational guidelines will the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) ultimately play?
And then there are those pillars JR Hammond alluded to: Communications, insurance, cyber-security and more.
It sounds like a lot to overcome – and it is. And that’s why conversations and panels like those which took place in Dubai are so critical as the move to AAM begins to accelerate.
“Even though we are all at different stages, the amount of collaboration already occurring in saying: ‘We need to solve this together’ was by far greater than anything than I’ve ever seen before in aerospace or business,” says Hammond.
So the commitment and collaborative spirit is there.
THE PATH TO AUTONOMY
There is a consensus, particularly with passenger-carrying aircraft, that the jump to autonomous flight won’t be immediate. There will be a graduated approach, starting with a pilot on board those aircraft. It’s anticipated early flights will be manually controlled, then monitored by a pilot still capable of taking over if required.
“In terms of autonomy, any market entry piece will happen with a pilot on board with full control and an augmented system similar to the autopilot systems that we have on commercial airliners today,” says Hammond.
“Then, as regulations and social acceptance and – of course – our policies increase, then we can move upwards on our autonomy scales towards that ‘human in the loop’ and then of course autonomous aircraft at some point in the future.”
But, says Hammond, it will be cargo deliveries – both intra-urban and inter-regional – that will come first.
“We need autonomous operations today in the cargo space before we even have a chance at the passenger space… And more resources and more efforts are needed to solve out what those air corridors can look like, with autonomous aircraft operating in our conventional airspace.”
Below: Mid-sized drones like this, carrying medical or other critical supplies, will likely be the vanguard of the transition to AAM.
With a variety of InDro Robotics delivery drones – including a model proven in trials for temperature-sensitive medical deliveries between hospitals – InDro has a vested interest in the AAM future. But it’s not just about us – far from it.
“I believe AAM will be truly transformative – and I’m not talking about the delivery of coffee and bagels to someone’s back yard,” says InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece.
“Advanced Air Mobility will mean that critical – and even life-saving – products can be quickly and safely transported across cities and to nearby regions in a fraction of the time of traditional ground delivery. It’s going to mean that people in some remote and isolated communities will be able to board regular or on-demand flights for the first time ever,” he adds.
“Plus, sustainable flight will play a significant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a time when such measures are very much needed.”
We were pleased to see JR Hammond and CAAM representing Canada’s AAM interests – and solutions – on a global stage. (And, if this is your first introduction to AAM and CAAM, you can find out more in our primer here.)
All images, with the exception of JR Hammond on the panel, courtesy of Dubai Airshow.