Urban Air Mobility
Urban air mobility (UAM) is defined in a 2018 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) paper “as safe and efficient air traffic operations in a metropolitan area for manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS).
Advanced air mobility, also called advanced aerial mobility, refers to the “adoption of electric and hybrid aircraft to urban, suburban and rural operations.” According to a 2020 paper by the U.S. National Academics of Sciences entitled Advancing Aerial Mobility: A National Blueprint, advanced aerial mobility "involves the emergence of transformative and disruptive new airborne technology supporting an ecosystem designed to transport people and things to locations not traditionally served by current modes of air transportation, including both rural and the more challenging and complex urban environments.”
While the study referenced in the Advancing Aerial Mobility paper was underway, NASA began increasingly using the term advanced aerial mobility. Urban air mobility is considered a subset of advanced aerial mobility. In March 2020, NASA announced that instead of using UAM moving forward it would use advanced air mobility (AAM) because the term is more inclusive. In announcing the change, NASA said, “we re still doing UAM work, but now we consider it part of a bigger picture we call advanced air mobility.”
The term UAM has been used within and outside aviation since around 2017 to describe an eco-system in which remotely piloted or autonomous air vehicles will be capable of routinely flying published routes above cities (and their aerodromes) at low levels, or conducting short-range flights between metropolitan areas. As UAM research by NASA and others continued, it became clear that UAM-related services could benefit a broader group than just people who live in large cities. Thus the decision by NASA, and subsequently the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin using advanced air mobility instead. In July 2020, FAA said it was formalizing use the of the term AAM.
NASA said its vision for AAM is “to help emerging aviation markets to safely develop an air transportation system that moves people and cargo between places previously not served or underserved by aviation – local, regional, intraregional, urban – using revolutionary new aircraft that are only just now becoming possible.”
UAM or AAM missions would rely on precise navigation and timing through three-dimensional corridors of uncontrolled airspace. The benefits envisioned include high-speed transport, avoidance of motor vehicle traffic, and reduction of traffic congestion on streets, freeways and highways.
Local flights will comprise a flight starting from a single point and extending out about 50 miles and back. Intraregional flights will be longer flights, such as between cities.
Roland Berger LLC, a consultancy based in Germany, expects to see electric propulsion systems on most UAM aircraft. The firm’s initial prediction of UAM-suitable RPA types includes the following designs: quadcopters, multicopters (distributed-propulsion and coaxial multirotor), hybrid-propulsion, tilt-wing/convertible-aircraft, fixed-wing vectored thrust and electrical vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) types.
This consultancy concentrated its research on the following UAM segments in 2018 and 2019: passenger transport; package/cargo delivery (e-commerce transport); emergency medical transport and security-related operations; aerial inspection and motor vehicle traffic control; and research, development and testing of UAM aircraft, systems and safety.
Current Areas of Focus
According to a March 2019 study of UAM innovators, 100 UAM projects worldwide reflect significant progress by a diverse community of competitors and investors. The competitors comprise aviation-related companies and non-aviation-related companies that expect to apply RPAS capabilities to address complex transportation needs already identified by the world’s cities. As noted, urban “commercial passenger drone services” have been widely touted, and often characterized as imminent, by news media.
For example, Roland Berger LLC said, “Manufacturers of airplanes, helicopters and vehicles are represented, alongside mobility and delivery service providers. But there are also plenty of non-industry players involved, such as consumer goods producers, pharmaceutical companies, telecommunications firms, research institutes, as well as city authorities, nations and supranational entities. … The ecosystem is complex, and the challenges in urban air mobility projects are extensive.” The consultancy’s interactive world map of UAM project sites specifically focuses on “projects that primarily target the use of autonomous drones to transport passengers, goods/parcels/mail and medication/first aid supplies around urban areas.”