The Helicopter and the UAM – What is the big difference?

By Captain Mark Trotter

The age of Urban Air Mobility is coming to our cities in the not too distant future. Do you remember the excitement of your first smart phone? Will your first ride in an UAM Taxi service create such memories? What is different about these ‘vehicles’ that is creating all the excitement? How are they different to the traditional helicopter?

Helicopters are great. They repel gravity and give us so much capability from filming to rescue to transportation and much more. In my flying years I got used to this and very much enjoyed the variety of these amazing machines. But the perception from passengers is often different. As a former helicopter pilot, I have seen passengers super excited, scared, cautious and completely mortified. But statistically, flying in a helicopter is still much safer that driving your car. Movies, action shows, and military usage are playing a part in our positive and negative perceptions of helicopter transportation.

So how does this translate to the next generation – the UAM. A sustainable, safe, fast mobility solution within reach of many soon.

Modern helicopters are exceptionally built and have some incredible technology. I learned 25 years ago to fly helicopters in the Bell 47. A great machine but has no automation. It was a very steep learning curve for the operator! Today, the modern helicopter is fitted with many computerized systems that help the pilot operating while increasing safety. The new UAMs are all being built from the ground up using today’s technology and being engineered adopting of the shelf innovations with the future in mind. Every design we have seen has multiple redundancy features. The Lilium featured here has 36 engines! So, the UAM vehicles that we will be flying around our cities has a great redundancy.

The other great innovation finding its way into an UAM solution is noise reduction. Helicopters have seen a significant improvement in noise reduction over the past years due to extensive research and development on computational fluid dynamics and wind tunnel testing. With electric propulsion and other features such as shrouded fans, the modern UAM will be able to bring this noise level further down. Within reach are no more than 50 decibels at 40 meters. This is conversation-level noise. Once the UAMs achieve this, the modern Urban communities will welcome them with open arms.

For widespread adoption of UAMs in our communities safe and quiet operations are essential. The helicopter has taken us a long way in just over 80 years to where we are today and has played an essential role enabling UAM to take off soon. The UAM era is on the way.

In our next article Mark will address sustainability further.