Urban Air Taxis Underway — UAM at Heli-Expo

Vertiflite, March/April 2020

VFS members are well aware of the “Electric VTOL Revolution” that has been underway for several years, with more than 250 electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft concepts on the VFS website, www.eVTOL.news. Most of the helicopter OEMs, most visibly Airbus Helicopters and Bell, have been considering eVTOL and urban air mobility (UAM) options for the future.

Although eVTOL has been increasingly featured at VFS events for many years, this year’s Heli-Expo actually saw only a single example, which was the Airbus A³ Vahana — the self-piloted eVTOL tiltwing vehicle demonstrator. Airbus put their second, unflown aircraft, dubbed “Alpha Two,” in the static display area at the back of the exhibit hall.

The Airbus A³ Vahana Alpha Two was on static, as was the Tier 1 Engineering electric-powered R44 that set a Guinness World Record last year.

At the Bell booth, information on the Autonomous Pod Transport (APT) drone and Bell Nexus air taxi (see “Electric VTOLs Steal the Show at CES 2020″) was much more subdued compared to the past two years when full-scale vehicles were exhibited.

Leonardo Helicopters Managing Director Gian Piero Cutillo noted in his press conference that his division — as well as the Leonardo Group — is investing in electric VTOL for UAM. “This is a new area. It’s a combination of a new technology, new material, new regulation, new certification — and we are really looking closely [at eVTOL] and considering the combination of all of these factors.”

When asked about the then-AgustaWestland Project Zero, which was the world’s first large-scale electric VTOL aircraft (albeit unmanned) in 2011, Cutillo responded, “Project Zero has been one demonstrator, as you say, that gave us some experience. We want to continue on that [path], whether with this or another [approach]. We will go in that direction to see how feasible it will be, the use of such technology. We may do this at the divisional level but also at the group level.”

“I think this will be a priority [for us] to define how to proceed to invest in that. As I say, we are making a number of assessments on that. We will be with a bit more detail in the near future to see how [we] can proceed on that. But definitely we will be there, most likely with some partner because we believe that a number of new actors are now coming [into] this field,” Cutillo concluded. “But definitely we will continue to be a key player on that.”

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, included the following in his remarks about safety to open Heli-Expo 2020:

Flying taxis are on the horizon and manufacturers are getting ready for testing. According to my UAS [Unmanned Aircraft System] team, we are currently engaged with the builders of more than 15 electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft projects. At CES in Las Vegas earlier this month, we saw Uber and the Hyundai Motor Company unveil a full-scale aircraft concept in their partnership to create Uber Air Taxis, and shortly after, Toyota announced a hefty investment in flying taxi developer Joby Aviation.

Also in January, we saw North America’s first public demonstration of an autonomous two-seat flying taxi—an eHang EH216 taking flight in Raleigh, albeit with no passengers.

Of course, the FAA has to ensure that these new entrants are safe before they can take part in regular National Airspace System operations. We’re using a crawl, walk, run approach as we mature the vehicle technologies and air traffic management procedures to do this, and at this point, I’ll note that we’re still in the crawling phase for both, but we are making rapid progress.

A key question we get from new entrants is “how safe is ‘safe’”? Will the fatal accident risk we accept for rotorcraft operations today be acceptable for Uber riders tomorrow? Probably not.

HAI also held a UAM Forum that afternoon. Moderated by new HAI President and CEO Jim Viola (see “Leadership Moves”), the panel featured talks by executives by Airbus, Bell, Uber, NEXA Capital and the FAA. This HAI panel followed similar panels hosted by VFS for the past several years — see “The ((Quiet)) Electric VTOL Revolution”).

New HAI President and CEO Jim Viola (far left) moderated HAI’s first Urban Air Mobility Forum on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. (VFS photo)

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