UAM airways – hub and spoke within a city?
By Captain Mark Trotter
Two of the most exciting elements of the emerging Urban Air Mobility (UAM) concept are the new exciting electric vehicles and the ’flying taxi’ concept that we all envisage.
There are obviously many other pieces to the puzzle in the middle that must be developed and work seamlessly for this transportation system to work.
One key element is how the airways (or air lanes) will be developed and managed. This is a key success factor and like many of the elements is completely new. For UAM to reach the levels of efficiency and volume that it needs for success, automation of routes and navigation is essential.
To understand the huge challenge ahead, we should contrast how this is done today with helicopters (as airlines do in a larger scale) and highlight what must change or be developed. I will use a typical point to point flight with a busy city as an example:
- Takeoff – Helicopter: Pilot needs to request and be given clearance to take off from departure point. Pilot will check visually that departure path is clear prior to liftoff. UAM: will need to receive automated clearance to lift and sequence into traffic pattern to effectively join the relevant route.
- Departure – Helicopter: Pilot will follow published and cleared route and sequence into transit route, informing other traffic. UAM: will automatically execute relevant departure route and join most direct route for destination.
- Route – Helicopter: Pilot will fly chosen route, informing other traffic of position and intentions. UAM: will fly allocated route. All other traffic will automatically be informed and aware of movements. Separation is managed dynamically.
- Arrival – Helicopter: Pilot will execute chosen and cleared arrival procedure, informing traffic. UAM: Will fly allocated arrival suitable for the chosen destination, automatically deconflicting with other arrivals.
- Landing – Helicopter: Pilot will need to seek landing clearance (on the radio or in advance). Pilot will execute normal landing procedure, checking site is clear and safe to land. UAM: will receive automated clearance to land and will execute the landing automatically, relying on the landing site management to ensure safety is maintained.
This contrast, albeit simple, highlights a key element in the change that is needed for this model to work – automation. The level of automation we need will be an evolutionary process. This process is already underway and developing at a fast pace. You just have to see the current nightly drone shows at the Dubai Marina to understand how incredibly advanced these system are already.
However, for automation to occur at the scale we are talking about we will need to plan and implement many elements of the system. The current Uber-style taxi ordering we take for granted today has come about due to the advance design of a system that combines several other systems (maps, driver/vehicle, payment, booking etc). For UAM, a similar process will need to be followed. The routes/airways will need to be designed and established into a system (Google Maps for the air), the pilot/vehicles will need to be integrated, the locations (Vertiports) will need to be added, a integrated booking system will be added, and of course and integrated payment solution.
If we then look at the airways requirements, fundamentally we need a system that manages automated safe navigation within a city or country network. The structure of this network will vary from location to location; however, the system does not need to. The same way Google Maps and other similar applications provide global mapping. I am sure concepts like hub-and-spoke will work in some models and standard concept of geographical separation will be used to.
The key is a system that, irrespective of the route design, is able to navigate UAM vehicles safely from departure to destination. There are many organizations working on this challenge today and we look forward to seeing the solutions as they come to the market.
In our next article Mark will discuss the UAM commercial air transport and operational models.