The Next Transportation Revolution – Urban Air Mobility

In this interview with Dr. Dhiren Marjadi, vice president, global aerospace business at Altair, we explore the promise of urban air mobility and the technology that may make it possible in the near future. Below is an abridged version of the interview. To view the full article, download the “Urban Air Mobility eGuide.”

Why is urban air mobility and specifically electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft generating such excitement? What benefits could this new mode of transportation mode have for urban commuters?

Marjadi: In many cities, traffic congestion can add hours to people’s travel time. Public transportation systems may also be limited in terms of where they go and may be inefficient for longer journeys outside the central downtown area. People always want to travel faster from home to work, work to home, or anywhere else. With the rise of on-demand mobility concepts like Uber and Lyft, people are seeing the convenience and financial benefits of mobility-as-a-service, which circumvents many of the costs and maintenance considerations of vehicle ownership.

I think whenever people can spend less time in transit, that is exciting to them. People are starting to envision a multimodal transportation system, where urban air mobility will be an integral part. Adding another dimension to avoid road traffic will let you choose the best mode of transportation to get from point A to point B significantly faster.

 

There are many new mobility initiatives outside of urban air mobility (UAM), from automotive transportation-as-a-service models to autonomous cars, to high speed train concepts like the Hyperloop. Do you see UAM supplanting other new mobility concepts, or do you envision, as you said, more of a multimodal transportation future?

Marjadi: Rather than one catch-all solution, I believe mobility will be augmented by multiple transportation options. Depending on your location and destination, if you want to go somewhere from your home, you may first ride an electric scooter to a nearby vertiport and take a flight, or you may call an Uber to take you to a train station. It could be any combination that will help you get from point A to point B faster, and air transportation will fill an important dimension that existing options struggle with.

For example, if I want to go from my home in Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., I have a couple options. By car, it’s about a nine to ten-hour drive, but parking costs and ample public transportation in D.C. make having a car while I’m there unnecessary.

The fastest and most convenient way to D.C. for me is by commercial airline, but the one-hour drive during Boston rush hour could easily turn into two hours or more and put me at risk of missing my flight. With UAM, I could call a ride-share car service from my home to take me to the closest vertiport in my town, then take an urban air mobility flight to the airport in just a few minutes.

COVID-19 has some reconsidering the ride-sharing model. Do you see this perception as a temporary or permanent shift, and how do you see it impacting the future of UAM?

Marjadi: People traveling by UAM is certainly being scaled back, but I see this as a temporary shift. My view, and I believe the industry’s perception, is that as we advance global virus treatment and prevention strategies, the world will still move toward shared mobility models. The benefits in terms of the environmental footprint, personal time-savings, easing of urban congestion, and cost to commuters remains extremely compelling. So, while public health remains paramount, I still see a bright future for UAM civilian transportation systems.

While human travel has scaled back significantly across all sectors, at the same time, demand for the transportation of goods is going up. We are all ordering much more online and it’s delivered directly to our home. UAM plays a significant role in that also.

The Amazon truck delivering packages to your house may soon be replaced by a fleet of drones who pick up small packages and deliver them right to your doorstep. That is more energy efficient, quieter, economical, and faster.

Another sector that is highly interested in eVTOL is the defense world. Because of its quiet nature, it’s not easily detectable and could more covertly and efficiently transport good and people to difficult-to-reach locations. The Department of Defense and defense companies worldwide are investing money in eVTOL vehicles for that reason.

You can even see it as great tool for disaster relief, getting supplies to a place that’s been hit by a natural disaster. You can imagine a shipload of equipment could be taken to an area hit by a hurricane, then have food and medical supplies flown to locations inaccessible to ground vehicles. Even search and rescue missions could be dramatically better, replacing a few helicopters with a swarm of small drones that could cover an area within a few hours.

 

What technical advances are needed in order to make electric-powered UAM a reality?

Marjadi: In the eVTOL world, the biggest challenge is creating a propulsion system that will deliver a higher number of passenger-miles between recharges. The current limitation is the power density and energy density of batteries. Those two numbers need to go up between four to 10 times in order to have a reasonable UAM system. Battery research is first and the foremost.

We also need efficient and safe battery management. We need to make sure that there are no thermal runaways within the battery that could lead to fire. Safety will be paramount to ensuring the success of this business.

After that, using the battery power for efficient motor, gearbox, and propulsion system operation is the remaining challenge. I believe the technology already exists to achieve this but putting it all together is a complex undertaking. Model-based system engineering is the key to optimizing the hundreds of (sometimes competing) mission requirements that go into designing an aircraft.

Do you have any predictions about whether you’ll personally take a UAM flight in your lifetime?

Marjadi: Actually, I think we all will be taking UAM flights within the next two to three years. Drones delivering packages are already happening in certain areas. You could say I’m optimistic, but programs are rolling out soon in Dallas, Los Angeles, Australia, Brazil, and all over the world. I would imagine my first drone-delivered package will come to me within the next six months and I believe human transport is absolutely coming sooner that people think.

 

Want to learn more about the design and development of eVTOL and UAM vehicles? Download the “Urban Air Mobility eGuide.”