In a previous article, we explained the basic concept of urban eVTOL. Known more generally as urban air mobility, developers see urban eVTOLs as a way to revolutionize city travel.
But how will this play out in the future, and what’s standing in its way? Read on to find out.
Urban eVTOL: Design Considerations
eVTOL stands for Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing, and the aircraft are basically giant drones. Urban air mobility does include drones as a category, but here we’re only focusing on passenger eVTOLs.
Urban environments have some specific design considerations that separate these eVTOLs from ones suited to long-range journeys. Here’s a brief overview of what makes them suitable for use in cities.
Urban eVTOLs use multirotor designs, much like small drones. Some designs, such as EVE, have something resembling wings, although this isn’t super common.
It isn’t common for an urban eVTOL to have wings because they don’t need the kind of lift that wings provide. Ultimately, they’re designed for short-range journeys, so do more takeoff and landing than horizontal flight.
While vertical takeoff is fundamental to the idea of an eVTOL (it’s in the name, after all), it’s particularly helpful in an urban setting. The aircraft can take off and land in very small spaces, meaning they can do so almost anywhere.
In fact, some designs, such as Urban Aeronautics, are basically flying pods. They’re not too far off cars in size, making them flexible in cities.
An urban eVTOL will run on a lithium-ion battery, much like the one in your phone or electric car. However, vertical lift is very energy intensive, meaning the batteries will run down quickly.
To combat this, companies have 2 strategies. The first is batteries that charge in about 10 minutes. But this’ll still mean 10 minutes of downtime between flights, which means lost revenue in a passenger-carrying model.
Instead, some companies are focusing on removable batteries. When flat, a technician will remove them, put them on charge, and replace them with a new battery. This could take seconds, making turnaround much faster.
A vertiport is the fancy name given to the terminal where passengers will board an urban eVTOL. While you might see some large structures on the ground, the plan is to put them anywhere they’ll fit.
In fact, major vertiport developer, Skyports, and US parking management company, LAZ Parking, announced a partnership in late 2021. Their plan is to use the roofs of parking garages as urban vertiports, making transport routes simple and effective.
The Pros and Cons of Urban eVTOL
Urban eVTOL might sound like the answer to all our traffic concerns, but there are some potential limitations. Despite some companies planning to launch by 2024, these issues are still very present and have no resolutions in sight.
So, here are the biggest pros and cons of urban eVTOLs.
Pros of Urban eVTOL
1. They’re quiet
The main issue with current fuel-powered aircraft in cities is that they’re loud. Like, really loud. The FAA has specific rules for aircraft noise levels in urban settings. It’s partly why we don’t use helicopters as taxis.
But eVTOLs are incredibly quiet. You can check out this video from Joby Aviation to see how their eVTOL compares to similar airplanes.
In short, it should mean they’re much more acceptable to use around residential areas in cities.
2. Clean power
This point is still a bit of a gray area, but, generally speaking, an electric vehicle is better for the environment than a fuel-powered one. For this to be true, the electricity will need to come from a renewable source. Most vertiports plan to add solar panels for just this reason.
3. Autonomous flight
Most urban eVTOL designs are autonomous, meaning they won’t have pilots. If nothing else, it means eVTOL companies won’t be limited by the number of pilots they can hire.
You’ll probably never notice it, but the same logic is true for taxis. There can only be as many taxis as there are drivers. But remove drivers from the equation, and your fleet can be as big as you want.
Cons of Urban eVTOL
1. They’re unregulated
As it stands, there’s no legislation guiding the use of eVTOLs, in cities or otherwise. US laws surrounding unnamed drones are still incredibly sparse despite their popularity.
But eVTOLs will need laws before they can start to fly. This is because they’ll carry passengers, fly autonomously, and travel around built-up areas. All this requires safety, so laws will have to catch up, and fast.
2. Will they be accepted?
There’s a big debate about how popular urban eVTOLs will be. Passengers will probably be concerned about safety levels, and there’s always some hesitation to adopt new technology.
So, what’s to say eVTOLs won’t flop before they really begin? This isn’t too likely, but there are plenty of issues that stand in their way. Cities and eVTOL developers will need to work hard on marketing to really get the idea off the ground.
3. Do we need sky congestion?
The main point of urban eVTOL is to ease congestion on the roads in cities. But would we really want hundreds of aircraft flying around city skies? Perhaps not.
One alternative solution comes from The Boring Company: tunnels. They plan to dig tunnels for roads to ease congestion. However, this won’t work in cities with large existing underground networks.
4. Weather problems
eVTOLs aren’t designed for less-than-perfect weather conditions. Factors such as wind speed, rain, and air temperature all affect their performance. Currently, there aren’t too many cities where they’d be able to fly. Companies will need to overcome these issues if they want urban eVTOL to be popular.
Final Thoughts on Urban eVTOL
Urban eVTOL definitely could change the way we travel around cities. But it could also just be a nice idea that never takes off. The next few years will be vital for testing the concept, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens.