At the moment there is a feel of the early days of manned flight. That ‘Wild West’ world of simultaneous start-ups and a multitude of ideas, some of them startling (read crazy) as the search is on for practical solutions to eVTOL aircraft and infrastructures to establish valid Urban Air Mobility (UAM) systems.
There are already many, apparently credible, proposals, but the key is to take a holistic approach, in parallel with the development of the aircraft itself, when a myriad of critical ancillary functions need to be considered and integrated from the start.
During the very successful 2021 AAETS, just such an inclusive approach was revealed by the Korean Airports Corporation (KAC). In a fascinating presentation, Ms. Mi-Ae Lee, Vice President Strategy and Planning KAC, unveiled a comprehensive plan which covered all the aspects to be addressed and established a realistic timeline to achieve a viable system.
Rationale for UAM
Faced with increasing urbanisation, and the overloading and delays of present transportation systems, the attraction of rapid shuttling between key points is attractive.
The infrastructure costs of expanding existing systems to cope with the visible and predicted growth of demand would be prohibitive. However, short, direct flights with quiet and efficient eVTOL aircraft would take some of the pressure off conventional solutions, and as technology grows, this option can expand its footprint. By using a third dimension – altitude up to 2000 feet, it load-sheds the turmoil of ground/underground transport modes. Some projections see a scale of value in the UAM market to match that of current commercial aviation – a huge market potential.
This is a national programme and the Korean government set up a UAM-dedicated division using national assets to design a UAM roadmap for Korea. This recognised that many specialist disciplines would be engaged, and so, with the target on initial commercialisation in 2025, and full-scale commercialisation in 2030, some 37 UAM-related organisations, companies and research organisations are now driving research and demonstrations to meet that goal. A preliminary testing route around Seoul has been agreed, and three phases defined:
- Phase 0 – (2021): Develop Scenario. Establish Test and Evaluation Facility.
- Phase 1 – (2022-23): Test and Evaluate in an Open Area over the Suburbs.
- Phase 2 – (2024): Test and Evaluate Airport – Downtown.
The Role of KAC
KAC has formed partnerships with three leading companies in Korea. KAC will develop and operate the UAM Vertiport Infrastructure and Traffic Management system. Hanwha Systems will develop eVTOL and become a UAM operator. SK Telecom, the largest telecoms company in Korea, will develop and operate the Mobility Platform and Communications Infrastructure for UAM. And KOTI, a transport research institute, will conduct research on market and public acceptance.
There are three sizes of vertiports planned, scaled to the level of traffic expected. The biggest will serve as a hub, and as both a serving and recharging facility. One example would be the planned large scale unit at Gimpo airport. The two other sizes will be matched to anticipated local demand. For instance, where current major roads intersect, a structure above them would give access to the UAM system.
A new system requires careful regulation and legislation to oversee it – the related safety and environmental issues necessitate specific controls. The US has a “National Campaign” project led by NASA to act as a demonstration model, and EASA has a similar principle in the U-Space initiative.
Coordination of regulation and technical development is essential. Beyond that start point, for instance, is the detail of Traffic Management within a new definition of operating airspace, using the extra capacity and speed of 5G to regulate safety and punctuality. Also requiring careful consideration is the training and regulation of the UAM employees. Initially planned for piloted operation, there is little doubt this will evolve into autonomous operation at some point, so regulation needs to be framed now to anticipate that.
Agencies such as the FAA and EASA are planning UAM employee certification to be integrated into existing qualification systems. Training for those individuals must be guided and approved – one eVTOL developer, Lilium, has partnered with Lufthansa, the German national airline, to seek specific expertise in aviation training. The progression from piloted to autonomous, gradually increasing the role of AI, also needs to be planned.
Korea has identified the need and potential for UAMs. It has taken the initiative of playing to national strengths and capabilities in technology, and applied blue sky thinking to plan to put an entire safe, commercial and capable solution in place. It will be interesting to watch the rollout. One only needs to look back to the development of the electronics, car and truck manufacturing, as well as shipbuilding businesses to realise that when a similar national focus has been established success has followed.