Or maybe the city will become an airport …
A new space race is on. The goal is on-demand urban aviation: electric VTOL drones piloting themselves over congested cities, cutting commutes from hours to minutes.
Uber is aiming to start demonstrator flights of the Uber Air service by 2020, and full commercial operations by 2023. Dubai’s rulers are enthusiastically pursuing test flights of Volocopter air taxis to a similar timetable, and Singapore’s civil aviation authority is working with the European Aviation Safety Agency and Airbus to develop standards for urban aviation. The European Commission launched its Urban Air Mobility Initiative in May 2018 and nine cities and one region have signed up to run pilot schemes.
“We’re seeing the largest innovation in aviation since World War II, and there’s certainly a component of first out the gate,” says Adrienne Lindgren, a specialist in urban aviation at WSP. “Cities are becoming vertical.”
Lindgren recently joined WSP from the mayor’s office in Los Angeles, one of two Uber Air launch cities in the US, where she was developing policies to help the city integrate new forms of mobility. Full-scale implementation won’t happen until closer to 2033, she believes, partly because airspace is so heavily regulated. But it is this that presents city planners with a golden opportunity, allowing them time to plan how and where urban aviation happens. It could be the missing link that better connects existing transit systems into a more functional whole.
What this actually looks like will differ from city to city. “Aviation has been built on a very specific standardized system, and this will really challenge all of the parties involved to think a little differently. If this becomes a reality, our conception of airports will change — the city will be an airport.” In Dallas — Uber Air’s other US launch city — urban aviation could connect the city’s sprawling suburbs and decentralized transport nodes. In southern California, it could add significant regional connectivity: “We don’t have trains, but we have a lot of people spread out. It’s so contentious to build on land in the US, owing in no small part to the number of competing and incumbent stakeholders on the ground, that I honestly believe it will be easier to activate airspace.”
Uber Air will link transit nodes rather than running point-to-point, at speeds of 150-200km. Its ideal city is large, sprawling, densely populated, polycentric and congested, and if it has a large airport that can’t be reached inside an hour, that would make for a “compelling use case” too. It has narrowed the search for a third launch city down to Japan, France, Brazil, Australia and India.
Lindgren foresees that small, forgotten or outlying airports could be brought back into the fold of a regional system. Major airports, meanwhile, will have to decide whether or not to welcome low-altitude interlopers, and how such services will integrate with their own transit, security and electricity networks.
There are armies of experts on both the technology and regulatory aspects. But there’s a crucial gap in the middle, believes Lindgren, for engineering and consultancy on how to implement urban aviation technologies for the good of city inhabitants. “What there hasn’t been a lot of to date are people working at the intersection — how do you integrate these into traditional infrastructure planning processes? Implementation is going to be extremely complicated because it’s going to touch so many different areas.”
The biggest challenge will not be technical so much as political: gaining public acceptance. “It’s going to really change the visuals of the city. We have to think about defining the public benefit of these technologies, otherwise why are people going to accept having them clutter their skyline?” Services will need to be affordable, says Lindgren: “As aviation becomes local, people will have the capacity to legislate you out of their airspace. That’s a real concern: if no one sees the value, or the value is only there for 2-5% of your population, people will resent having it in their skies.”
There will be a cultural shift for all concerned, as ground transport providers and municipalities get to grips with aviation for the first time. This is where airports are uniquely placed to help. “Airports have tended to do their own thing in the past, but increasingly you will see them included in conversations about how we plan cities and about oversight of all these different assets. Airports will continue to become more important in dictating urban power centres.”