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  • ✈️ #15: What makes Advanced Air Mobility advanced?

✈️ #15: What makes Advanced Air Mobility advanced?

⏱️ TL;DR

  • 1. AAM is like UAM and RAM an increasingly populair term. They are often mixed, but there are significant differences.

  • 2. Electrification will enable the business model for UAM and RAM, digitization will make is scalable.

  • 3. UAM and RAM can become AAM when they integrate electrification and digitization technologies.

Want to know more? Scroll some more ⬇️

👩‍✈️On the menu

  • Starter: Buzzwords

  • Main course: The synergy of electrification and digitization

  • Dessert: Everything can be AAM



Advanced Air Mobility, or AAM, is a term that is increasingly being used to define a new type of aviation. And it sounds a lot like the other buzzwords that are associated with other futuristic types of aviation; Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and Regional Air Mobility (RAM).

So before diving into AAM, let’s first define what the other two mean:

  • Urban Air Mobility: Small Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft that take a handful of people on short distance trips (less than 50 miles). Usually around urban centers. This type of operation will have a lot in common with how helicopters are operating today. The main difference with helicopters is that UAM aircraft will have electric propulsion, making it possible for the aircraft to be designed differently. Especially the larger number of propellors is eye catching. While similar types of operations already exist, experts believe that the advantages of electrification will boost the business model.

  • Regional Air Mobility: Aircraft capable of carrying up to 50 passengers or cargo with a range of 50 to 500 miles. Comparable to operations carried out by aircraft ranging from Cessna Caravan’s to small regional jets or even business jets today. While short haul flights are often associated with feeder flights, contributing to the hub-and-spoke model, RAM will be based on point-to-point flights to smaller regional airports. The popularity of RAM is expected to be boosted by the advantages of electrification, just like UAM is.

When you do an internet search for Advanced Air Mobility you get an endless stream of images like the one below. Displaying aircraft with varying numbers of electric rotors, some positioned vertically, some horizontally, some able to tilt, above a large urban area.

Source: evtolinsights.com

In my opinion, this defines Urban Air Mobility, not specifically Advanced Air Mobility. So, then what does it take to be properly called Advanced Air Mobility? 

 🍲 Main course

The synergy of electrification and digitization

There are two main developments that shape the future of aviation today. The first one is sustainability, in this case provided by the electrification of propulsion. As discussed earlier, electrification will be the technological shift that drives the development of UAM and RAM. These types of transportation will provide a sustainable alternative for ground transportation. (For more on how electrification will do that, check out issue #8 of this newsletter.)

For air mobility to be considered advanced, it needs to integrate the opportunities that digitization, the second main development, provides. So that both pillars of the future of aviation are working together. Digital technologies such as (semi-)autonomous flying, digitized air traffic management and autonomous navigation systems. Technologies that will enhance the flexibility of aircraft and accessibility of airports in synergy with emission-free electric propulsion.

How digitization will help

RAM and UAM both require new digital technologies for large scale implementation of their respective operating model. However, the reason for that differs.

For UAM, digitization is required to safely facilitate the scalability of flight movements in already crowded airspaces. Imagine a flight from New York’s JFK airport to Manhattan using an eVTOL aircraft a few years from now. That aircraft uses an airspace in between three major airports (JFK, LaGuardia and Newark), together with other eVTOL aircraft, small conventional aircraft, helicopters and an increasing amount of drones. Some of them will be flying with a pilot on board, some of them, especially the drones, will be remotely piloted.

Advancements in Air Traffic Management (ATM) are necessary to facilitate this new hybrid situation. When not all aircraft are being operated in the same way (with a person on board), the way of communicating with these different types of aircraft can also differ. While at the same time more aircraft will be flying closer together than ever before.

Fortunately, organizations like NASA and EASA are working on developing Unmanned Traffic Management systems to complement conventional ATM. Systems that are going to facilitate this hybrid situation. The program at NASA is called Air Traffic Management eXploration (ATM-X) and EASA is working on a program called U-Space. These developments in ATM will be discussed in a later issue of this newsletter.

RAM requires new digital technologies for opposite reasons. Not to facilitate flying in crowded areas, but for flying in remote ones. NASA calculated that 70% of all travellers in the U.S. travel via 30 airports, while the total amount of airports in the U.S. is over 5.000. The unique selling point for RAM will be to connect those other thousands of airports that are too small for regional jets to operate from on a regular basis. The electric aircraft, carrying not more than 50 passengers, will be small enough to be serve the communities close to these regional airports.

The upside of operating from those airports is that it is often cheap and quiet. The downside is that they are usually not that well equipped with navigation beacons, landing systems and Air Traffic Control. Meaning that operating limits regarding weather are quickly reached, limiting the accessibility of the airports during Instrumental Meteorological Conditions (IMC).

Digital technologies will improve the accessibility by providing pilots with extra eyes and ears. Whether on ground or on board. An example of that is Xwing’s vision-based landing system, which is specifically developed to improve the accessibility of small airports. The company states that "fewer than 60 airports in the U.S. have a CAT III approach, and less than 20% of U.S. airports have an ILS approach at all". So 80% of the American airports don't have a precision landing system, limiting the possibility to land during IMC using conventional technology.

To be able to land in IMC Xwing uses a front-facing camera combined with sensor pods on both wings. The pods scan the area around the aircraft to create an enhanced situational awareness for the operator of the aircraft. Showing where the location of the runway and obstacles surrounding the runway.

Xwing’s vision-based landing system

Step by step

So, both UAM and RAM will benefit from using modern digital technologies to increase the operation capabilities. However, it’s UAM that will probably take up the AAM glove first on a larger scale. Seeing how large companies like Airbus and Boeing are investing in UAM and the large number of UAM manufacturing start-ups, it looks like this type of mobility is maturing a bit quicker. Making integrating technologies that will improve the operational capabilities more urgent. Also the limited range of battery driven aircraft is less of a problem for the short UAM flights.

The leading European aerospace company BAE systems states:

Urban Air Mobility (UAM) leads the way for Advanced Air Mobility, focused on sustainable air mobility technologies for urban environments [..] Use-case studies show companies and individuals in cities and suburbs will use UAM vehicles and services much more often and sooner, proving their cost-effectiveness and resulting in them becoming financially viable more quickly. As that financial strength grows, it can also help support the growth of the less urban elements of AAM operations.”

BAE Systems

If it’s true what BAE states, in the long run, RAM will benefit from UAM laying the groundwork for AAM. In the meantime, small scale UAM operations will already be possible, just like the first steps in RAM. Digitization is not a necessity to start, but it will be a necessity for scaling up. It is during that upscaling phase that the true potential for AAM will emerge.

🍦 Dessert

Everything can be AAM

As described in the Starter, the core principle that separates RAM from UAM is range. AAM does not have that limitation. Short haul, long haul, everything can be AAM. As long as both fundamental principles, sustainability and digitization, are implemented, any mode of air transportation can be considered advanced. The shorter the range of aircraft, the sooner we will see the type of operation advancing to AAM.

At the moment, there are no aircraft operating commercially that even can be considered UAM or RAM, let alone AAM. Building these type of aircraft is still work in progress, but so is thinking about what these concepts will represent. This is my take on the new operational concepts that are being developed. Let me know if you share my views or when you have different ideas about what AAM defines.

Thank you for getting all the way down to the end of this issue of Airline Food for Thought! If you have any questions or suggestions you can contact me via [email protected] or send me a message via LinkedIn.

For more about me, visit giel.io