The Year for Urban Air Mobility May Be Delayed by COVID-19

The Urban Air Mobility (UAM) market reached a turning point in 2020.  With the start of a new decade, the prospect of individualized personal flight becomes more of a reality. As many UAM companies hope to launch during this decade, 2020 has proven to be a pivotal year for many in the industry and will continue to show the larger roadmap for the future. A once specialized market dominated by start-ups has seen rapid growth and investment by outside forces. While prior years have seen traditional aerospace companies such as Boeing make their mark, 2020 has shown that other industry leaders are not afraid to put time and resources into the promise of personalized flight.

The year started with the huge announcement that Hyundai, the car manufacturing giant, would be entering the space. The South Korean automotive manufacturer will not only bring its massive reserve of engineers and years of experience, but will also bring low cost, wide-scale manufacturing experience to the world of UAM.  When  announcing plans for its four-passenger vehicle dubbed the S-A1, Hyundai further revealed that it would be the eighth partner in the Uber Air program.

Uber Elevate has partnered with Jaunt Air Mobility on Jaunt’s Reduced Rotor Operating Speed Aircraft (ROSA). Image – Jaunt Air Mobility LLC

Uber will continue to be the largest force behind UAM for the foreseeable future. The ride-share giant has partnered with several companies, from software developers to vehicle developers, both big and small, to innovate the world of ride-sharing. Uber hopes to use these partnerships to launch the Uber Air service, a ride-sharing network of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles that could be accessed by people with the use of a smartphone app.  Uber’s influence on the market cannot be understated, as it is the largest private entity pushing the field forward. Uber hopes to launch its new service by the middle of the decade and has even teamed up with government agencies such as NASA to ensure there is a robust network ready for the future of UAM vehicles. This year marks a key turning point in Uber’s vision for the future. The company recently hoped to continue its plans for flight tests this year across various cities with the ambitious goal of launching its service in Los Angeles and Dallas by 2023. While much of this is still in the planning stages, the timeline of these goals may be pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Impact

No discussion of 2020 can be had without addressing the impact of COVID-19. The virus has caused industries across the board to face slowdowns. Most notably with regard to the UAM market, Voom, a UAM holding of Airbus, shut down at the end of March, citing COVID-19 as a primary factor for the closure.  But despite this, some UAM companies have shown that they provide a unique benefit to society at a time of global uncertainty.

As previously reported by Forecast International, Chinese company eHang has shown that the technology used for UAM can provide benefits during a crisis in which human interaction needs to be limited. The Chinese company used its automated vehicle to remotely fly supplies and medical professionals to various hospitals across the city of Hezhou in China’s Guangxi Province. At a time when social distancing is key to preventing increases in infections, personalized vehicles provide the perfect means of transport for medical professionals who need to get from place to place while avoiding the public.

The goal for all forms of UAM is to eventually have pilotless flight much like the eHang 214, meaning it would limit the potential spread of disease that is the current risk involved with modern ride-sharing, public transit, and other forms of public commute. A future involving widespread UAM adoption involves pilotless vehicles flying passengers to and from locations before heading back to a central hub for sanitization. Cutting out the pilot from the equation helps keep disease spread to a minimum.

Additionally, the challenges of sanitization that face large-scale public transit systems such as subways or buses are not present due to the individualized nature of UAM.  For buses and subways, timely shutdowns have to occur for cleaning to take place. These sanitization periods are lengthy and require operation to cease.  A fleet of automated eVTOLS could cycle out after every ride, which would make the process of keeping them clean a much easier prospect, on top of limiting interaction between passengers.

Some of the Elements Involved in NASA’s Urban Mobility Grand Challenge. Image – NASA

This year will continue to be pivotal for the UAM industry.  In addition to all of the chaos involved with the COVID-19 outbreak and the test flights of Uber Air partners, it is also the first phase of the NASA UAM Grand Challenge. The Grand Challenge is designed to create a network of government and private agencies that will all contribute to infrastructure and technology needed for the future of UAM. As previously reported by Forecast International, 17 NASA partners will be working together on this first phase of the Grand Challenge. Much has yet to be seen from this challenge, but the goals of safety and interconnectivity are at the heart of this NASA project.

Above all else, 2020 will be the largest year of UAM yet. Major players have entered the market and collaboration and partnerships have been seen across the industry. Chinese company eHang has been moving across the globe, partnering with cities in Europe. Investors in the air transit space have invested in UAM infrastructure. There is no telling what the final nine months of the year have in store for UAM. Despite global unease during the COVID-19 crisis, UAM is not an industry that will be stopped in its tracks. It has proven to be the next step in aviation, not just a fad. As these trends continue to develop, Forecast International will be on the frontlines of the industry to ensure that as news breaks,  it is being reported on.