What is Urban Air Mobility? 2022’s Unusual Futuristic Transport

evtol with propellers on roof top

Urban air mobility is a modern solution designed to ease congestion in cities and surrounding urban areas. While it might sound self-explanatory on the surface, it’s actually an incredibly complex subject.

So, let’s take a look at what we mean by urban air mobility to understand the concept in better detail.

What is Urban Air Mobility?

Urban air mobility (UAM) is the idea of moving around, to, and between cities. Its aim is to ease road-based congestion. Most of the focus surrounds passenger vehicles, but logistics is the second largest area of concern. In short, anything that takes cars and vans off the road has the potential to become urban transport.

You’ll often hear the terms eVTOL and VTOL thrown around when talking about UAM. VTOL stands for Vertical Take-Off and Landing, and eVTOL is the same but with electric engines.

You can check out this in-depth video from NASA that properly explains the concept of urban air mobility.

History of UAM

On one level, the concept of urban air mobility isn’t new. For example, a helicopter carrying passengers around a city counts as UAM. This already exists in places like Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Mexico City, Mexico. Airbus manages a company called Voom, which runs passenger helicopters around the cities.

But the main issue with helicopters is that they’re big, loud, and run on fossil fuels. So, most industry attention focuses on electric aircraft. This is because they’re more environmentally friendly and more acceptable to fly around residential areas.

Urban air mobility as we understand it really began in 2017 with the launch of the WiNDroVe project in Hamburg, Germany. It used electric drones to deliver parcels and for other logistical purposes. Following that, Germany launched an Urban Air Mobility project in 2018 with Airbus, Audi and several universities.

Since then, the idea has boomed. There’s a vast number of companies now testing different eVTOLs for urban use, although none have officially launched yet. The first major launch of an eVTOL will be at the 2024 Paris Olympics when Germany-based eVTOL company Volocopter plans to run taxis for the athletes.

An image showing the Volocopter urban air mobility craft. It is a multirotor passenger aircraft.
Volocopter’s passenger eVTOL.

What are UAM Aircraft?

As mentioned, urban air mobility aircraft are typically electric. While this isn’t an official requirement, electric engines are generally seen as the future of transport. But if you know anything about aircraft, you’ll know that electric planes aren’t really a thing.

So, what is a UAM aircraft and how does it work?

UAM Drones

The easiest one to understand is the drone. We’ve likely all seen one, and many of us have probably played with one. Drones have been revolutionary in everything from filming and security to parcel delivery and more.

A drone is basically a small electric helicopter. The most common design is multirotor, meaning it usually has 4 or more separate rotors. This kind of design makes it easier to maneuver and gives the pilot far greater control over the drone.

Image showing a small unmanned drone carrying a parcel for delivery.
A parcel delivery drone.

Drones are already being tested for delivery services by the likes of UPS, Google, and the UK’s Royal Mail among others.

Passenger Aircraft

The larger – and perhaps more interesting – development in UAM is passenger aircraft. In short, they’re a cross between a giant drone and a helicopter. As the name suggests, they’ll carry people around cities and so are commonly called air taxis.

Urban air mobility aircraft fall into the category of eVTOL, but they’re just one of many different kinds. Some companies are developing long-range eVTOLs, but these use a different design that’s better suited to longer flights.

An image showing the Lilium Jet, a fixed-wing electric vertical takeoff aircraft.
The Lilium Jet is a vastly different design to urban eVTOLs and is intended for long-range journeys.

UAM eVTOLs generally use a multirotor design similar to drones. Long-range eVTOLs more commonly have wings and movable propellers, so they look more like a normal airplane.

Again, this is a very broad definition. Within the multirotor design, you have ducted, unducted, quadcopter, octocopter, and much more. Each design has benefits over the others depending on things like maneuverability and payload.

Generally, passenger eVTOLs will be autonomous, meaning there won’t be a pilot. The main reason is that a pilot adds weight to the vehicle, meaning you’d have to sacrifice passenger space. Also, it means training and paying a pilot, which will bring the cost up once companies have massive fleets.

Instead, they urban air mobility eVTOLs will use a combination of AI, machine learning, and blockchain tech to plan routes and avoid hazards.

There are almost countless companies developing passenger eVTOLs. Some of the biggest names are Volocopter, Joby Aviation, Lilium, Ehang, Vertical Aerospace, and Urban Aeronautics.

How Will Urban Air Mobility Work?

As mentioned, the purpose of UAM is to ease congestion. But what will this actually look like? Here’s a rough outline:

  1. eVTOLs will launch from things called vertiports or skyports. Unsurprisingly, these are essentially heliports but with a passenger waiting room, like a bus terminal.
  2. Because they can fly vertically, eVTOLs don’t need much room. As such, you’ll see vertiports on the top of car parks, skyscrapers, and so on.
  3. Commuters, for example, will park their cars on the outskirts of a city. They’ll then book an eVTOL to pick them up to complete the journey to work.
  4. If an eVTOL can carry 5 passengers, this means up to 5 cars will be taken off city roads for each one that runs.

Pros and Cons of Urban Air Mobility

Urban air mobility might sound like a perfect concept, but there are some potential flaws.

Pros

1. Takes cars off the road. If nothing else, fewer cars on the road in urban areas should be helpful.

2. The aircraft use electric power, meaning they’re much cleaner than fuel-based vehicles.

3. eVTOLs are much quieter than current VTOLs, making them more acceptable to run in larger numbers around urban areas.

4. The sky is a 3D environment. Unlike roads, as sky routes become congested, you can just open new ones at different altitudes.

Cons

1. eVTOLs are untested ground, so don’t have regulations. This will be a major holdup.

2. Many people might not want to get in an unmanned helicopter due to safety concerns.

Final Thoughts on Urban Air Mobility

This brief overview should give you a better idea of urban air mobility. It’s a fascinating concept, and plenty of countries are investing heavily in air taxis and skyports. Of course, we have very little data about how it’ll work, but UAM is a futuristic idea if nothing else.

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