Bringing Urban Mobility into the Third Dimension
The accumulating density in urban settings poses numerous challenges, including increased traffic congestion on our roads that results in not only poor air quality but also inefficient use of energy.
One way Vassilis Agouridas, Airbus Strategic Innovation Senior Manager, is addressing these challenges is by seeking synergies between ground and air mobility solutions in urban settings. Airbus leads the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Initiative of the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC), supported by the European Commission, that is exploring the potential to bring urban air mobility solutions to cities across Europe. Agouridas manages the UAM Initiative on behalf of Airbus.
For cities, expanding ground transportation into the third dimension – the airspace above our cities – offers limitless opportunities, from drone-powered medical deliveries, ambulatory care and emergency interventions to future integrated urban mobility solutions of ground and air featuring air taxi services that use low noise, electric take-off and landing vehicles. However, the challenge of getting multiple stakeholders on board to collaborate on establishing a brand new industry is considerable as well.
“We want to jointly create safe, secure and quiet mobility solutions for smart cities and megacities which are clean throughout their lifecycles,” says Agouridas.
“But making UAM a reality is bigger than any one company. A three-fold approach is needed which combines close cooperation between public and private stakeholders to set up the necessary infrastructure and regulatory frameworks needed for airborne operations; strong cooperation between ground and air mobility actors; and co-creation with citizens. This approach is a prerequisite to ensure sustainable mobility that safeguards societal benefits.”
Vassilis Agouridas, Strategic Innovation Senior Manager at Airbus
Thanks to the recent convergence of digital technologies, UAM is no longer just “pie-in-the-sky” thinking. In fact, Airbus has been actively working on a portfolio of urban air innovations, including electrical vertical take-off and landing demonstrators CityAirbus and Vahana (the latter of which has already conducted several test flights), an on-demand helicopter booking platform in Mexico and Brazil known as Voom, and Skyways, a demonstrator for unmanned delivery drone services in Singapore.
“The technologies are there, or soon will be, but challenges such as urban integration, public acceptance of urban flight, and air traffic management are rooted in the natural tendency for people to have reservations about the unknown. We are uncomfortable with things flying over our heads. It’s not something we are used to.”
To this end, Agouridas believes that when it comes to using airspace to alleviate ground congestion, especially in cases such as medical and emergency operations, it goes beyond just public acceptance. As drones and other aerial vehicles become more commonplace, it is about the public embracing these solutions over time.
“When we pass a bus stop, we don’t stop to look at the bus stop or at the arriving bus. But today, most of us do stop and observe commercial drones flying or landing, not to mention future drone-taxis and their infrastructure, which simply shows that public familiarity with the operations enabled by these new technologies isn’t quite there yet.”
To address these and a multitude of other challenges, the UAM Initiative is, out of necessity, far-reaching. It brings together cities and their citizens, industry, small business, banks, and research institutions across Europe.
To date, 24 European cities and regions are on board with the UAM Initiative, including Geneva, Ingolstadt, Amsterdam and Turin (see map). These cities are leading the definition, and when ready, the execution of UAM demonstration projects, some of which are initiating as early as end of 2019, beginning of 2020. But before the demonstration projects get off the ground (literally), Agouridas says the public, technical, legal, and infrastructure needs and requirements should be addressed.
“We need to start with examining the mobility needs of the city and determine how we can satisfy those needs in a sustainable manner. It could be the desire to explore emissions-free urban air ambulances, air vehicles for rapid emergency interventions, or even further, such as air- taxis as an alternative transportation solution for those who generally rely only on ground transportation, or how to use drones for faster delivery of critical medical supplies. Specific cases are currently being defined and explored by each city and region part of the UAM Initiative.”
The ultimate goal is to use these mobility demonstration projects to help evaluate how society could benefit from advances in mobility innovation from both a technological and business model perspective, and identify where it could be appropriate to accelerate innovation to enable cities to better deal with their future mobility needs.
“For Airbus, our aim at the UAM Initiative isn’t to use this project to showcase technological advancements and promote technology projects of small and big companies such as ourselves,” Agouridas says.
“The main purpose is to assess the sustainability, be it environmental, economic or societal aspects, of urban air mobility technologies and operations. Then, we aim to put in place an ecosystem that can support cities and city-dwellers to make the most out of urban air mobility technologies such as autonomous and electric aircraft, both for moving people and freight, and analyze business models for integrating all the modes of transport – what we call mobility-as-a-service—in a way that is not only environmentally and economically sustainable, and responsible, but also fully embraced by society.”
We want to… bring urban mobility into the third dimension in a way that is sustainable and embraced by society.
We need to make sure… citizens’ and cities’ voices are put at the forefront of this effort.
The best way to do this… is to co-create from the very beginning.
We’ve had to overcome… (and still are) challenges that come with bringing together and engaging with various stakeholders with differing viewpoints.
It’s hard for cities… to say not to innovative mobility solutions that can benefit their citizens and complement city transport options. That’s why we are exploring urban air mobility as part of inter-modal transport solutions to move people and freight for tomorrow’s cities.