On Nov. 1–2, more than 400 representatives from government, industry and academia gathered in Seattle, Washington, to attend an industry day marking the launch of NASA’s UAM Grand Challenge plan, which is designed to provide an integrated vehicle and airspace operational environment for use as a “proving ground” for UAM aircraft developers.
Over the next few years, NASA will host a series of operational demonstration programs addressing known UAM challenges and allowing participants to learn from one another and collectively “raise the water level” together, explained Dr. Jaiwon Shin, NASA Associate Administrator for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD).
UAM refers to the vision for a safe and efficient system for piloted or automated aircraft to move passengers and goods within a city. The advent of new electric and hybrid-electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft is a major driver both in UAM and in a new wave of innovation promising significantly lower direct operating, maintenance and energy costs; low noise; and little or no emissions.
The goal of the NASA UAM Grand Challenge is to facilitate community-wide learning. It was modeled after the DARPA Grand Challenge — funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to stimulate research and development of autonomous cars (resulting in the current wave of driverless vehicle technology) — and after the DARPA’s more recent Robotics Challenge and Subterranean Challenge.
NASA has now positioned itself as a champion to advance UAM, and believes co-development of both vehicles and airspace technologies will be required for UAM to be successful.
However, unlike the DARPA programs, NASA’s UAM demonstration program is not a contest, awards no prizes, and provides no direct funding to support participants. Instead, it allows NASA to act as a system integrator — helping to unite the ecosystem of UAM stakeholders, which includes not just the aerospace sector but “local governments, standards bodies, real estate and construction industries and others involved in Smart City infrastructure or multi-modal transit,” according to NASA.
During the industry day, NASA and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) representatives discussed the opportunities and challenges of the first Grand Challenge (GC-1), which is scheduled to commence in late 2020.
For GC-1, NASA believed the critical elements for success would be: airworthy vehicles; interfaces between vehicles and a basic UAM traffic management system; a common set of safety and integration scenarios; a common set of data collection capabilities; and a set of common range requirements to support the participation by non- NASA test range providers.
GC-1 will see aircraft complete a series of performance and safety-focused scenarios over nominal UAM-like missions and unusual situations (such as loss of an engine), focusing on vehicle airworthiness, design readiness and design robustness.
To participate, air vehicles must have a payload capability of at least one person even if they will be flown unmanned.
Companies and organizations interested in participating in GC-1 were required to respond to the NASA Grand Challenge Request for Information (RFI) by Nov. 16, 2018. A second Grand Challenge (GC-2) will commence about a year after the first, and will focus on airspace qualification and vehicle/ airspace scenarios designed to represent complex integrated real-world UAM operations and uncertainties.
NASA recognizes that many of the aircraft being developed for passenger and cargo UAM operations will not be certified when the Grand Challenges occur. That’s why each scenario will be designed to develop quality data that is valuable to the FAA, certification bodies, standards groups and the general public.
While some of its flights will utilize the restricted airspace over Edwards Air Force Base in California, NASA wants the Grand Challenge to be hosted at multiple locations, including ranges interested in developing their UAM testing capabilities and test sites in urban locations.
NASA Releases Two UAM Market Studies
In 2017, NASA ARMD hired two teams of consultants to study the viability of different UAM “use cases.” On Nov. 6, the agency released highlights of the two in-depth UAM reports to the public. Both reports explore many of the complex opportunities and challenges that NASA expects to address with industry, government and academic partners in its UAM Grand Challenge.
The first study, by Crown Consulting — with McKinsey & Company, Ascension Global, Georgia Tech’s Aerospace Systems Design Lab and NEXA Capital Partners — explored the viability in 15 US cities of three potential unmanned aircraft system (UAS) and eVTOL use cases: last mile delivery (for packages), air metro (an autonomous public transit style commuter system) and air taxi (an autonomous on demand ride sharing system).
This study included 100 interviews with experts across UAS, eVTOL, regulatory and relevant technology fields; detailed assumptions and inputs for more than 50 variables; and aggregated insights from large consumer and business-to-business surveys with more than 2,000 respondents. The consultants also developed a detailed econometric model.
This study found that a commercially viable market could exist for last-mile parcel delivery and air metro by 2030, but “it’s unlikely that there will be a widespread air taxi market in 2030 due to high investment costs,” though it added that there may well be concentrated areas of high-net worth individuals and businesses served by air the taxi solution (e.g., Manhattan to suburbs).
The lessons learned included that “it is critical to evaluate UAM in terms of specific use cases” and the “viability of specific UAM use cases likely requires a holistic approach that takes into account a complex ecosystem.”
The second UAM market study, by Booz Allen Hamilton, looked at three potential UAM markets — airport shuttle, air taxi and air ambulance — in ten target urban areas to explore market size and barriers. The results suggested that, “Airport Shuttle and Air Taxi are viable markets with a significant total available market value of $500B at the market entry price points in the best-case unconstrained scenario.” The unconstrained scenario refers to a case where infrastructure is available for landings and takeoffs, there are no capacity limitations, and demand is not constrained by a willingness to pay. (Note that the US domestic airline industry currently has an annual market value of $150B.)
The study also found that the air ambulance market served by eVTOL aircraft “is not a viable market due to technology constrains, but utilization of hybrid VTOL aircraft would make the market potentially viable.”
This report outlined the process used for selection of markets, calibration of markets, and selection of priority opportunities. It also looked at legal and regulatory elements, societal barriers and weather.
The report found that “significant legal/regulatory, certification, public perception, infrastructure, and weather constraints exist which reduce market potential in near term for UAM” but “after applying operational constraints/barriers, 0.5% of the total available market worth $2.5B can be captured in the near term”.
Both UAM reports were commissioned to provide NASA with a foundation to launch its first UAM Grand Challenge.
Ken Swartz runs aerospace marketing communications agency Aeromedia Communications in Toronto, Canada. He specializes in contract public relations, freelance writing, and social media marketing for the aviation and aerospace industry. He has reported on the helicopter industry for 40 years. In 2010, he received the Helicopter Association International’s “Communicator of the Year” award.
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