As nations climb out of poverty, new cities sprout and existing cities see steady expansion in their boundaries. More than ever, cities witness mass migration today as people move to urban spaces in search of jobs and a better standard of living. And as the population swells, cities find it hard to accommodate people on its woefully congested roads, where people end up spending a significant chunk of their daily life commuting to and from work.
It is estimated that by 2030, over 500 million people will be affected by traffic jams in the megacities and that around 2.5 billion people will live in urban areas by 2050. A feasible way out of this mess would be to look at the viability of air mobility transport, explained Andreas Thellmann, project executive, at the department of urban air mobility in Airbus, Germany.
At the Future of Transportation World Conference held this week in Germany, Thellmann extolled the potential of the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology and the efforts taken by Airbus to plant itself in this growing segment of air mobility.
The VTOL industry is now a $1 billion market with about 50 companies working on creating an economical and practical solution to the road traffic woes in cities. Questions generally arise on the additional financial burden this technology would incur on governments, and Thellmann explained that it usually is something that is blown out of proportions.
“When we look at a bridge over a motorway that is 150 meters long, the costs are about 200 million euros for construction. When we build an underground tunnel for a train, we pay one billion euros per kilometer,” he said. “This means that for one kilometer of an underground tunnel, you get financed an entire VTOL program.”
VTOL market is closer to reality than people think. Sao Paulo in Brazil is an example, as the city now looks to the skies for escaping peak hour road congestion - although the market is small and currently uses traditional helicopters as air taxis. “In this state, there are about 700 helicopters registered, and it happens to be one of the ten most congested cities in the world. The city has about 380 landing pads, but just 150 of them are fully operational today, but nevertheless is a huge infrastructure already available in the city,” said Thellmann.
Then again, the economies of scale need to be thought out before governments flag off such ambitious initiatives. In Sao Paulo, a ten-minute ride on a helicopter from the airport to the city center costs about $2,500 - a ridiculous amount of money for a seemingly short trip. But this stems from the broken business model of the air taxi companies, which charge on an hourly basis, forcing commuters to shell out the full hour rate even for a fraction of that time traveled.
With the intention of quelling such unreasonable rates, Airbus introduced Voom, an on-demand helicopter service over Sao Paulo which is now disrupting the business model of air taxis in the state. The company currently flies six helicopters over Sao Paulo and plans to have at least 500 more in the following years.
“We want to do that not just for the wealthy people, but also to make it available for everyone. Of course, that is a function of time as in the beginning, it might be for the business traveler coming to the airport and continuing his journey to the city center. But our objective is to make it available to everyone traveling on a different ground taxi today. It has to be convenient for the passenger, and we need it to be safe and affordable,” said Thellmann.
To create a viable end-to-end air mobility solution requires extensive planning and development. To start with, the design of an urban aircraft is crucial as it is significantly different from conventional helicopters - with a quicker take-off and landing while operating at a much-reduced noise level to not disturb regular life. The production and maintenance cost of these aircrafts should also be considerably less for private players to be interested in running fleets, while customers must have a seamless travel experience for them to become regular patrons of air taxis.
“Today’s architecture and philosophy of air traffic management (ATM) is a centric one, and I think we have to change to a decentric one, where a part of it is included in the vehicles, and they communicate with each other [directly],” said Thellmann. “The next block is the ground infrastructure. When you ask people what the biggest challenge to air mobility is, most of them say it is the vehicle or the ATM, but actually, it is the ground infrastructure that is the secret bottleneck of this solution.”
Unlike popular consensus, this does not necessarily point to the need for helipads or ‘vertipads’. The feasibility of charging and fueling VTOLs also falls under the purview of ground infrastructure, and this might require building extensive grid systems across cities to get this market off the ground.
As excited investors pour millions into projects powering the idea of air mobility, it still remains to be seen if it would pique customer interests and result in widespread commercial adoption - the absence of which could make Google Glass look like a more reasonable failure.
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