Urban eVTOL – the reality and the challenges of the new civilian transport paradigm

By elsight | January 17th, 2023

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Urban eVTOL, also widely referred to as urban air mobility (UAM), is a futuristic aviation concept that aims to solve the growing issues caused by the ever-increasing levels of road traffic in and around cities. While full-scale production is currently some way off, the rate of progress is highly promising and a large number of prototypes are currently under development.

What is urban eVTOL?

eVTOL stands for electric vertical takeoff and landing, and refers to aerial vehicles that differ from regular VTOL aircraft such as helicopters due to their method of propulsion. Helicopters are loud and run on environmentally-unfriendly fossil fuels, and eVTOL platforms solve both these problems, making them much more suited to urban transport. Most proposed eVTOL designs are powered by batteries, although some will incorporate hydrogen fuel cell technology.

What will eVTOL be used for?

The two major civilian applications for urban eVTOL will be passenger transport, or “air taxis”, and cargo transport. The transfer of some of the burden on these two industries to the skies will help reduce congestion on the roads, as well as the carbon footprint of intra- and inter-city transport networks.

The ground infrastructure for urban eVTOL will center around transit hubs known as vertiports. Initially, these services may be able to utilize existing helicopter infrastructure, with purpose-built facilities constructed as the industry matures. Due to the vertical movement and compact nature of the aircraft, vertiports may be able to operate where regular airports cannot, such as from the tops of parking garages and large buildings.

Commuter vertiports may operate on a “park and ride” model similar to that of bus transit, where passengers park their car within the facility and use eVTOL for the final part of their journey.

eVTOL technology and platforms

A wide variety of eVTOL aircraft platforms are currently being developed by manufacturers around the world, including leading aviation industry players such as Boeing and Airbus. Many of these designs can be grouped into three main categories, providing different speed, range and efficiency capabilities.

Multirotor/Multicopter – these designs are similar to giant quadcopters or multirotor drones. These are the least complex designs and provide a high level of redundancy in case of rotor failure, but their lack of wings makes them the least efficient in forward flight and limits their speed and range.

Vectored Thrust/Tiltrotor – features tiltable thrusters, some of which are shared for both lifting and cruising, requiring them to change orientation. These aircraft also use wings for efficient forward flight. This design provides the fastest cruising speeds, at the cost of increased complexity and weight.

Lift and Cruise – a hybrid solution that uses wings for forward flight, as well as independent thruster sets for lifting and cruising. These designs are simpler than vectored thrust aircraft, and gain some of the redundancy benefits of multicopters. Their efficiency level lies in between the other two designs.

Due to the large amounts of power required for takeoff and landing, battery-powered aircraft are likely to be drained after each flight. Even with fast-charging batteries, recharging in between flights will take time that eats into the number of operations that can be performed each day, and thus lowers commercial gain. The alternative will be for technicians to swap out used batteries for freshly-charged ones, a process that with sufficient design consideration could take minutes or less.

The challenges facing the eVTOL industry

Developing the platforms, infrastructure and procedures for safe and efficient eVTOL procedures will be no easy feat. While creating entirely new platforms with complex aerodynamics, state-of-the-art composite materials, and novel propulsion methods will be challenging enough, the move to autonomous operations will add an entirely new layer.

Due to the expense and time required for training and employing pilots, it is generally envisaged that the urban eVTOL concept will eventually move away from onboard PICs (pilots-in-command) and towards remote and autonomous operation. The trifecta of autonomy, flight in urban areas, and carrying of passengers means that gaining regulatory approval for commercial eVTOL will be a long and arduous process.

As with BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) drone operations, certification and legislation for urban eVTOL platforms is still in its infancy. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is currently taking a case-by-case approach, and has published a CONOPS (Concept of Operations) developed in conjunction with NASA and detailing how urban air mobility could be introduced into the NAS (national airspace system) in stages.

A number of social and cultural issues must also be tackled in order for urban eVTOL operations to be widely accepted. Noise levels produced by the aircraft must be kept to a minimum in order for flights to become commonplace in urban environments. Costs must also be driven down so that eVTOL infrastructure is seen to benefit the entire community and not considered to be reserved for the most affluent in society.

Assuring people that eVTOL operations are safe will be one of the most important hurdles to leap. According to a survey conducted by Airbus, a significant number of people already have a perception of rotary aircraft such as helicopters being inherently less safe than winged aircraft. One high-profile accident could set the industry back significantly, as has already been seen in the self-driving car sector.

Urban eVTOL market predictions

The urban eVTOL and air mobility market has the potential to be highly lucrative, and is already growing steadily. According to a report published by Acumen Research and Consulting, the global market was worth nearly 7 billion USD in 2021, and is projected to grow to over 30 billion USD by 2030.

The autonomous eVTOL segment currently accounts for over 65% of the market share, and this is likely to increase as technologies and regulations mature.

Secure communications for eVTOL operations

The highest safety standards will have to be applied to eVTOL aircraft in order to make acceptance and full commercial activity viable, especially once the industry makes the leap first to remote piloting and then again to full autonomy.

One of the crucial factors that underlies safe and successful operations will be a high-reliability communications solution. UAM aircraft will have to remain in contact with ground control stations at all times, and a wide variety of information will have to be passed back and forth. This includes command and control, flight plans and schedules, ATC (air traffic control) communications, weather data, telemetry and more.

Cellular communications provide a number of advantages for eVTOL aircraft communications compared to other methods such as SATCOM and unlicensed RF. 5G in particular offers significant potential, with the low latency required for remote piloting as well as significant bandwidth for data transfer.

Elsight’s Halo cellular communications platform is ideal for urban eVTOL developers, providing a low-SWaP (size, weight and power) capability that can be easily integrated into prototypes and production designs alike. Halo delivers the robust and reliable communications required for safety-critical applications such as UAM, using state-of-the-art AI-powered cellular bonding technology to provide seamless redundancy and automatic bandwidth management.

Halo can be equipped with up to four SIM cards, allowing it to utilize up to four IP links from different carriers. These links can be aggregated to maximize bandwidth potential, or prioritized and used as a redundant backup capability if network gaps are encountered in the urban environment..***Halo is 5G-capable and has been proven on 5G Standalone networks – a form of cellular architecture that will allow connected systems to benefit from the very best in latency and bandwidth capabilities.

To find out more about how Elsight’s Halo could benefit your eVTOL aircraft design and ensure safe and compliant operation, please get in touch!

FAQs

Is eVTOL real?
While eVTOL operations do not yet exist in a fully commercial sense, a number of prototypes have shown promise and it is only a matter of time before the concept becomes viable.

What is UAM eVTOL?
UAM is a concept that involves using aerial vehicles to conduct operations that are currently carried out almost entirely by road, such as commuter transport and cargo delivery. The most common platforms envisaged for use in UAM are eVTOL aircraft, which are electric engine-powered platforms that can take off and land vertically in the same manner as helicopters.

Who is making eVTOL?
A wide variety of firms are working on eVTOL aircraft platforms, including traditional aviation and vehicle companies such as Airbus, Boeing and Honda, as well as specialist developers such as Volocopter and Ehang.

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