The sustainability of Urban Air Mobility(UAM) – Does it make sense?

By Captain Mark Trotter

When do you see yourself ordering your first flying Taxi for Urban and Regional fast sustainable transport?

 

The UAM vehicles are being developed at a manic pace and almost every day we hear about test flights and milestones achieved. What is it about this new mode of transport that makes it so appealing? Is it all hype? Future dreaming…?

When I was a kid one of my favourite TV shows was the Jetsons. It was a quirky fun show like many others, but it was set in a utopian future. The thing that made it different for me was the flying cars. It just seemed so cool and easy. Surely this was something that we could aspire to.

Well, here we are, on the verge of having flying cars. Why now? What has changed that is enabling this capability for future transport needs. As a whole, it is technology, but specifically the technology of computing and electrical power.

We all know that from a computing perspective our phones have more power and capability than our work computers did 20 years ago. This is linked to the concept of Moore’s Law, which states roughly that the capability of an integrated circuit will double every 2 years. It is not strictly a law, but more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Regardless, this increase has made it possible to put enormously powerful computers into small devices.

We have had electricity as part of our lives for hundreds of years, however the development of how we use and manage it continues to evolve. It is this element that is essential for the success of the UAM concept. Electric motor capabilities continue to increase along with battery and hydrogen capabilities and capacities. Electric cars are not some future concept – they are here and very real. So, it makes sense that the next step will be adapting the electric motor into aviation and the general public to accept it. Accept it as passengers or Urban habitants.

How does this all relate to sustainability? Sustainability can be defined as the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. In simple terms, something is sustainable if it is renewable into perpetuity without any negative impact on people or environment. This is a pretty big ask.

Sustainability is relative. Contrasting different forms of energy production is perhaps a good way to demonstrate this. Green energy sources (Wind farms, solar, wave etc.) are increasingly popular these days and when compared to a coal-fired power station They are certainly cleaner and more sustainable. For starters, we are not consuming any nature resource to produce the energy and the wind blows naturally and we are simply harnessing it. Is it fully sustainable? Maybe not. The resources required to build and maintain each wind turbine are significant. Time will tell if this form of energy production is sustainable. Like all new technologies we need time to assess.

This is an important point to highlight. We know that electric cars are potentially more sustainable that fossil fuel-powered cars. It is a step in the right direction but again, too early to tell.

I think the same can be said for UAM vehicles currently under development. If they are successful in certification and have a comparative capability to a small helicopter, they will most likely be more sustainable. The level of sustainability is something we will need to watch carefully. It certainly will not dampen the fun involved in flying across the city like the Jetsons! Are you ready because it will happen sooner than you think?

 

In our next article Mark will discuss the UAM landing sites of the future.