By Scott Simmie
If you’re involved in the world of drones or traditional aviation, odds are you’ve heard of air taxis, cargo drones and the coming world of Advanced Air Mobility, or AAM.
But what does that mean? And how will it differ from our current skies?
To get started, it’s worth looking at a definition of AAM. We like this one from BAE Systems:
“Advanced Air Mobility is an air transport system concept that integrates new, transformational aircraft designs and flight technologies into existing and modified airspace operations. The objective of AAM is to move people and cargo between places more effectively, especially in currently underserved local, regional, urban, and rural environments.”
And these transformational aircraft designs? Well, they include air taxis and heavy-lift drones capable of efficiently moving people, goods and critical supplies from major urban centres to nearby regions. Many of these destinations – certainly initially – are likely to be close to major urban centres but not have traditional airports. Often, those underserved areas have never had enough traditional air traffic demand to support the required infrastructure. Plus, it doesn’t really make sense to fly a plane over a very short distance.
The coming generation of new aircraft, for the most part, will not require runways and will be more environmentally friendly than ground transport. Most of the aircraft under development are electric and capable of vertical takeoff and landing – often transitioning to more efficient fixed-wing flight for the journey. And that means minimal infrastructure will be required. Think helicopter landing pads.
Sustainable electric or hybrid-powered flight, along with the promise of autonomous missions that can efficiently ferry goods through the sky while reducing road congestion, are among the key benefits of AAM.
Below: Volkswagen is just one of many companies developing new types of aircraft for the coming world of Advanced Air Mobility. Some firms are actively testing.
AAM and UAM
The drone and aviation world loves its acronyms. And one that goes hand-in-hand with AAM is UAM – Urban Air Mobility.
UAM refers to the use of Advanced Air Mobility technologies in a strictly urban setting. Picture a major city where you can hail an air taxi to a landing pad, also known as a vertiport, with a phone app. Or where goods are routinely shuttled by drone or other new aircraft across urban skies. That’s what Urban Air Mobility refers to. Think of it as a subset of AAM.
But while UAM offers unique efficiencies and a reduction in ground traffic, it also comes with greater risk than flying goods to regional areas. That’s because these aircraft will be flying over property and people for the entire duration of their missions.
They’ll also be flying at lower altitudes than traditional crewed aircraft, and – eventually – in greater numbers. So regulators are interested in helping to shape the coming UAM (and AAM) eras to ensure a safe system that seamlessly meshes these new aircraft with existing airspace.
In early May, the Federal Aviation Administration – the US regulator – released an updated blueprint of how it envisions AAM will unfold. The Concept of Operation (ConOps) document outlines what procedural changes might help ensure a slow, safe and smooth transition into the coming era.
“Transportation is constantly evolving,” it states. “Each step forward yields new opportunities that fundamentally change the relationship that humankind has with distance and travel. While it may not significantly reduce surface traffic volume, UAM will provide an alternative mode of transportation that should reduce traffic congestion during peak times.”
And the driving force behind all of this? Technology.
“Major aircraft innovations, mainly with the advancement of Distributed Electric Propulsion (DEP) and development of Electric VTOLs (eVTOLs), may allow for these operations to be utilized more frequently and in more locations than are currently performed by conventional aircraft,” says the regulator.
We’ll dive a little deeper in a moment. But the FAA says – in addition to certifying aircraft and pilots – that the blueprint is a “key step” in efforts to move safely toward this next phase of aviation. The blueprint should be of interest to everyone in the industry – particularly those who have plans for moving people and cargo by this next generation of aircraft. The FAA describes the blueprint as a “frame of reference” for itself, NASA, and the industry.
Below: Might Vancouver’s skies one day include aircraft like the one pictured below? Odds are, yes.
So how will the US get from here…to there?
What guidelines or steps are needed to ensure a safe transition from now to then? The key, says the FAA, is to adopt a “crawl-walk-run approach.” In other words, start slowly – very slowly – and integrate these new aircraft in a highly methodical way while building on incremental successes.
“The envisioned evolution for UAM operations includes includes an initial, low-tempo set of operations that leverage the current regulatory frameworks and rules (e.g., Visual Flight Rules [VFR], Instrument Flight Rules [IFR]) as a platform for increasing operational tempo, greater aircraft performance, and higher levels of autonomy,” says the FAA.
That “low-tempo” means you won’t be hailing an autonomous air taxi anytime soon. In fact, when it comes to moving people and goods, fully autonomous aircraft are in the last stage of the FAA’s Concept of Operations.
Here’s a look at the three main phases the FAA has identified, taken directly from the blueprint:
- Initial UAM operations are conducted using new aircraft that have been certified to fly within the current regulatory and operational environment.
- A higher frequency (i.e., tempo) of UAM operations in the future is supported through regulatory evolution and UAM Corridors that leverage collaborative technologies and techniques.
- New operational rules and infrastructure facilitate highly automated cooperative flow management in defined Cooperative Areas (CAs), enabling remotely piloted and autonomous aircraft to safely operate at increased operational tempos.
Below: An EHang EH216 carries out a passenger-carrying, autonomous flight in Oita Prefecture, Japan. The company has already logged 30,000 safe flights and is in the certification process with the Civial Aviation Administration of China. Image via EHang.
The FAA document focuses on air taxis – eVTOLs capable of carrying either people or cargo. And, in line with its “crawl-walk-run” approach, envisions a phased integration of these vehicles into US airspace.
All aircraft would be need to be certified. And initially, the Pilot-in-Command would need to be onboard and manually flying the aircraft using Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). Pilots would communicate with Air Traffic Services, which would be responsible for ensuring adequate separation with traditional aircraft.
The ConOps document also envisions corridors – three-dimensional freeways in the sky that would be set aside for air taxi traffic. These corridors would at first be one-way only, though that would likely change in future.
In the early phases, the FAA believes existing helipads or other current infrastructure would be adequate. But it encourages planners and municipalities to use the best available data and forecasts when determining where to build vertiports.
“State and local governments are being encouraged to actively plan for UAM infrastructure to ensure transportation equity, market choice, and accommodation of demand for their communities,” says the document.
“The vertiports and vertistops should be sited to ensure proper room for growth based on FAA evaluated forecasts and be properly linked to surface transportation (when possible), especially if the facility primarily supports cargo operations. Local governments should also have zoning protections in place to protect airspace in and around vertiports and vertistops.”
As demand – and technology – advance, the FAA foresees traffic management becoming more automated. Data-sharing and detect-and-avoid technology would likely enable the eventual rollout of fully autonomous flights. In that scenario, these machines would operate under what the FAA calls “Automated Flight Rules” – or AFRs.
It’s all part of an evolution that would see the gradual implementation of automation, with people playing less active roles over time. Initially, the FAA says, there would always be a Human-Within-the-Loop (HWTL) – meaning a pilot. That would evolve to a person having supervisory control of automation, known as a Human-on-the-Loop (HOTL).
In a fully mature system, people would simply be notified by automation if action is required. This is referred to as Human-Over-The-Loop (HOVTL), defined by the FAA as follows:
- Human is informed, or engaged, by the automation (i.e., systems) to take action
- Human passively monitors the systems and is informed by automation if, and what, action is required
- Human is engaged by the automation either for exceptions that are not reconcilable or as part of rule set escalation
“UAM operations may evolve from a PIC onboard the UAM aircraft to RPICs/remote operators via the advent of additional aircraft automation technologies,” states the blueprint.
The following FAA graphic indicates the predicted evolution of the UAM operational environment:
SLOW AND STEADY
There’s much more to the FAA document, and we encourage those interested to explore it here. But the key point is a slow and measured integration of these new transformational aircraft with an emphasis on safety and human oversight within existing regulations. As technology and data-sharing improve, this will evolve to a more automated/autonomous system with humans involved only if they are flagged to intervene. New regulations will likely evolve as the technology continues to develop.
The FAA released a brief video in conjunction with its blueprint, which hits some of the highlights discussed in this post:
Like many, we see the great potential in the coming Advanced Air Mobility/Urban Air Mobility era. Certified aircraft safely moving people and goods will be faster, more efficient and more sustainable than current ground travel. It could also be a boon to people living in communities currently not served by traditional aircraft.
“We see particular utility for remote and cut-off communities in need of critical goods,” says InDro CEO Philip Reece.
“We always use the crawl-walk-run model when deploying our own new technologies, and believe this incremental approach is the best way to ensure safety and public acceptance. We anticipate Canadian regulators, working with industry and the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium, will be taking a similar approach.”
The new FAA blueprint, though it’s a ConOps document and not carved in stone, does leave us feeling that plans are starting to take shape. We look forward to the slow, steady and successful integration of UAM/AAM in the US, Canada and elsewhere.
If you’d like to do some further reading on AAM – and what’s happening on the Canadian scene – you’ll find that here.