Paul Adams is a director specialising in Aerospace at Vendigital. He recently shared his insights with the Royal Aeronautical Society.
The UK Government’s recent decision to back the world’s first urban air mobility hub in Coventry is a sign that the eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) future of aviation has moved a step closer. So, should the industry be considering a pivot and how could it achieve this in a cost-efficient way? While the idea of ‘flying taxis’ may still sound futuristic, the plans for Urban Air Port Air-One could help to build significant momentum behind the eVTOL trend. With large aerospace projects generally requiring significant amounts of funding and investment in supporting infrastructure to get off the ground, the development also sends a strong message that the UK government is committed to making this vision for public mobility a reality.
With NASA claiming that urban air mobility in the US alone could be worth up to £375bn in the near-term, it’s clear that developments in the field of eVTOL could offer a significant commercial opportunity for the aviation industry. Representing a hybrid between traditional commercial aircraft and autonomous vehicles, the use of technologies such as air taxis has the potential to radically transform the way we travel and live.
For example, as well as reducing passenger journey times and improving connectivity between UK cities, the use of cargo drones could accelerate the growth of e-commerce and the rise of the on-demand economy experienced during the pandemic. Drones also have the potential to improve levels of health and safety in the workplace by removing the need for humans to perform dangerous tasks, such as abseiling to scan oil and gas infrastructure during general maintenance processes.
With passenger numbers still only representing a fraction of what they were before the pandemic, the aerospace and aviation industry must waste no time in considering what its future looks like. A key part of this will involve thinking through how to reconcile traditional aircraft with the urgent need to achieve net zero targets in the coming years. Pivoting to the eVTOL trend could provide one route path to realising the sector’s carbon-reduction goals.
How will regulations evolve?
One of the key challenges involved in a successful transition to eVTOL is the complex international nature of current air traffic and travel regulations. While aviation industry regulations should certainly be viewed as one of the industry’s pillars of strength compared to other areas of UK transportation, it is still important to recognise that this is a hugely complicated area. In particular, the question of how legislation will have to evolve to enable aviation to interact more closely with the urban environment will need careful consideration.
While there will inevitably be early adopters of eVTOL technology, it will also be important not to underestimate the challenge of convincing the public to use and accept air taxis as part of their day-to-day life.
While the UK currently has one of the biggest aerospace supply chains in the world, a switch to eVTOL aircraft would require a fundamentally different approach. One reason for this is the need to use a different fuel source to traditional commercial aircraft, which in turn would require a completely new set of supporting infrastructure.
A new approach to IP
In order to effectively source the technology involved in manufacturing eVTOL aircraft, the sector will need to adopt an integrated supply chain approach, with a strong focus on strategic supplier relationships. This will require the aerospace industry to adopt a new approach to intellectual property (IP). Whereas, currently, OEMs would expect to hold the majority of IP rights, in the future it will become essential to develop valuable partnerships with industry disruptors to bring technologies such as batteries to market. In order for the sector to achieve the transition to eVTOL in a cost-efficient way, collaboration with suppliers from the design phase of the manufacturing process will also be key.
With the eVTOL evolution likely to involve a rapid pace of change and shorter product life cycles, manufacturers will also need to become used to managing a larger range of new products and bringing them into service quickly.
It’s important to remember that key sustainable technologies, such as batteries, have the potential to transform several different areas of transportation, for example, rail and automotive as well as aviation. As such, the UK should focus on becoming a leader in these disruptive technologies by investing in bringing them to market as quickly as possible.
While air taxis and other forms of eVTOL aircraft may still seem like something from a sci-fi film, the Government’s backing for Coventry’s one-of-a-kind hub suggests that the vertical mobility future may be closer than we think. While regulatory issues are likely to pose the most significant challenge to achieving this industry pivot, a focus on cross-industry collaboration and investing in key technologies now will be key to getting this vision off the ground.
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