Drone flying above traffic on a roadway

Urban Air Mobility Adds a New Dimension to Travel

Flying cars have a cool factor. George Jetson took a flying car to work. Star Wars characters used sky taxis. But are they a viable, real-world travel option? The Urban Air Mobility community says yes. MITRE’s looking at UAM’s opportunities and obstacles.

Imagine you’re in Chicago. You have 30 minutes to get to a meeting across town. The streets are clogged with cars and buses clocking 4 miles per hour. Driving is not an option. What can you do?

What if you could use an app to virtually hail an air taxi? You head to the nearest vertiport, board in minutes, and arrive at your meeting location with time to buy coffee.

Short-distance vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) flights within and around metropolitan areas are no longer the stuff of sci-fi. Urban Air Mobility, or UAM, is an industry term for on-demand, highly automated (unpiloted), passenger or cargo-carrying air transportation services. It’s an innovative transportation option to avoid congestion plaguing many cities and suburbs around the world.

Anytime a new type of vehicle enters the airspace (think unmanned aircraft systems, aka drones, 10 plus years ago, or today’s commercial space launch race), possibilities and challenges follow. MITRE aviation experts are participating in the UAM discussion—and exploring what needs to happen before air taxis arrive in a city near you. It's part of our mission to solve problems for a safer world. When it comes to aviation, safety always surpasses convenience.

No Runway Required

How does it work? As an electric-powered mode of transportation, UAM takes advantage of uncluttered, low-altitude (500 to 5,000 feet above ground level) airspace to take one to five passengers or cargo to destinations of five to 50 miles. And it does it without adding to road congestion or pollution, or creating costly road-widening projects. VTOL does not require a runway. The flights need just enough space to go up, across, then down.

The prospect of using an open slice of the sky to (literally) rise above ground traffic is appealing to various stakeholders. The steadily growing UAM community includes the FAA, NASA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, transportation researchers, municipal governments, and civil aviation authorities. The diverse group also includes aircraft manufacturers like Bell Helicopters, Airbus, and Boeing, ridesharing company Uber, and startups such as Kitty Hawk’s Cora, Joby, and Terrafugia. In São Paulo, Brazil, a precursor to UAM is in use, and an app-based platform finds and books the nearest helicopter. In New Zealand and Dubai, entrepreneurs are testing and refining prototypes.

A Shift in Transportation from Ground to Air

Brock Lascara, senior systems engineer in MITRE’s FAA-sponsored Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD), says the 2017 Uber Elevate white paper inspired him to delve deeply into UAM. He turned his inspiration into an FAA-funded independent research project that explores what impact this transformation in transportation could have.

"It's a major shift in transportation, and it got me thinking about the concept of operations," Lascara says. He served as principal investigator of the recently published independent MITRE study, Urban Air Mobility Landscape Report.

"We don’t have a good operational system to support automated air taxis—yet. The enabling technologies, like distributed electric propulsion and autonomous flight, are rapidly maturing. We need to think about how these technologies can safely integrate and operate in the NAS [National Airspace System]. We may need new flight rules, standards, and certification processes."

The report's co-authors have more than 100 years of aviation experience among them. They outline 13 key challenges to moving UAM from where it is today to full-scale operation and acceptance.

Informing and Supporting the FAA's Decision-Making

Among the initial challenges are airworthiness and SWAP (size, weight, and power), because air taxis must have enough power to lift thousands of pounds. Policymakers and scientists require time to develop rules and regulations to ensure the safety and security of the vehicles, passengers in the air, and people and structures on the ground. Certain air traffic control services may need to be automated.

Then there's the challenge of certifying an aircraft in which software is performing most of the duties of the pilot. Another issue? New noise pollution. Electric-powered propellers can sound like your neighbor is using several lawn mowers at once.

But report co-author Andy Lacher, an expert in vehicle autonomy and unmanned aviation systems (UAS), notes that MITRE is frequently at the forefront of complex challenges. In addition to contributing technical know-how, we also pioneer together to coalesce stakeholders and frame the issues for government sponsors—activities that help make the world safer.

"We've done this before, with integrating UAS into the national airspace, developing detect-and-avoid technologies, enabling package delivery via drone, and redesigning airspace over metroplexes," he says. "With UAM, we're looking at the concept, the hazards, and how to prepare as a community for these challenges. Our work will help inform and support the FAA's decision-making around UAM."

The UAM community is taking cues from the evolution of UAS and the emerging technology of self-driving cars. In fact, the Landscape Report maps each challenge to a UAS solution. MITRE also has a role in ground-based autonomous transportation and is exploring potential synergies. 

All Hail an Air Taxi!

Urban-centered air transportation isn’t new. In the 1970s, Boston and other cities had on-demand helicopter taxi service. (Of course, The Jetsons and Star Wars were fictional early adopters of flying cars.) But accidents, noise and air pollution, and cost ultimately grounded the taxis.

Today, the timing is right to revisit this mode of transportation. Technology, manufacturing practices like 3D printing, social acceptance, and demand have evolved—while traffic on urban and suburban roads continue to exact a high economic, mental, and environmental toll.

"The concept of using air taxis has advanced in the past four years, but there’s a long way to go before people are hailing cabs from the sky," Lacher says.

As the authors write in the Landscape Report, "…we believe it is not a matter of if UAM will happen but a matter of how quickly regulatory environments and operational policies can adapt to permit full-scale operations."

Safety is paramount. "Addressing the safe integration of UAM is an important part of MITRE priorities associated with new and emerging transportation concepts," says Hassan Shahidi, who oversees MITRE’s work in the safety of new transportation technologies. 

A Future Beyond Commutes and Cargo

It's conceivable that in 10 to 15 years, air taxis will be commonplace and the fares affordable (as transportation-as-a-service model drives costs down). And as uses expand, new jobs and services will develop around the UAM market.

In addition to shuttling passengers or delivering packages, the UAM community envisions a variety of uses for the technology. Consider just a few: Emergency air ambulances getting accident victims to hospitals faster. First responders rescuing people stranded by floods. Tour guides enabling visitors to sightsee from a whole new vantage point.

How to get there is the topic of UAM conferences and summits hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, AIAA, Uber, and others. MITRE continues to look at all sides of the UAM equation through ongoing collaboration and a small number of cooperative research and development agreements with stakeholders.

We'll know that UAM has truly arrived when a new generation of kids play with Hot Wheels—without wheels. 

by Karina Wright