Vertical Flight Society Forum 78’s leadership roundtable provided vital lessons learned for opening session attendees on the rapidly evolving advanced air mobility (AAM) sector. What is intriguing about the executives’ insights on the topic is that their perspectives on the topic mirror, in many instances, highlight presentations at 2022 WATS.
“Conventional helicopters are here to stay for a long time,” Roberto Garavaglia, Senior Vice President for Strategy and Innovation, Leonardo Helicopters, told the audience. As a result, Leonardo’s business model includes developing “smart helicopters” with enhanced architecture and other capabilities. At the same time, there are hurdles the community needs to overcome to realize the potential of AAM concepts. The executive interestingly first noted that the current physics-based challenges of electric propulsion systems for eVTOLs and other platforms should encourage planners to initially focus on viable “middle ranges, about 100 mi [161 km],” as opposed to supporting shorter mission distances.
The executive then said there are “huge, huge” efforts needed to gain regulators’ support for more AAM operations around the globe. Of additional interest was the importance of services and logistics to future AAM ecosystems, and, in particular, eVTOL operations. Myriad requirements that “will come in time,” include emplacing the right amounts of batteries in the right place at the right time, developing networks of charging stations and related tasks. And “let’s not forget weather, which is not generic even in urban areas. You must anticipate this,” he added. While Leonardo continues to “look carefully” at AAMs for passenger transfer, the OEM does not see AAMs, as a class, being mature and viable on its long-range product roadmap until 2040.
Nonetheless, Leonardo is providing the carbon composite fuselages for the UK-based Vertical Aerospace VX4 AAM aircraft, for which Vertical has secured 1,350 conditional pre-orders worth about $5.4 billion.
Paul Lemmo, President, Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company, reminded delegates that his company and US DoD’s DARPA are working to dramatically improve flight safety and operations so humans and machines can work together more seamlessly in the field. Indeed, Sikorsky’s modular approach is leading the way toward a future where aircraft can be operated with two, one or zero pilots at all times of the day or night and in a variety of complex scenarios, including contested, congested, degraded visual environments. Lemmo noted this technology suite already exists in Sikorsky’s S-70 Optionally Piloted Vehicle Black Hawk and the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft, a modified S-76B helicopter. “AI is built into autonomy to support these early projects. What’s next? – developing these capabilities up through unmanned missions in contested logistics environments,” he concluded.