How Close Is Urban Air Mobility To Becoming A Reality?

eVTOL vehicle
Credit: Joby Aviation

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How close is urban air mobility (UAM) to becoming a reality?

Executive Editor, Technology Graham Warwick responds: 

So far, Uber is sticking publicly to its stated goal of beginning limited aerial ridesharing service in its pilot cities by 2023. And at least one of its vehicle partners, Joby Aviation, remains committed to certifying and operating its electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) air taxi by 2023.

The U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime program, which is intended to help accelerate the certification of commercial eVTOL vehicles by providing access to testing resources and a government early-adopter market, is likewise targeting the fielding of a “small handful” of vehicles in 2023.

Uber planned to conduct flight tests on an experimental vehicle over a U.S. city later in 2020 but has not provided an update on whether the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted these plans. These flights, of a piloted vehicle without passengers, are intended to demonstrate the low noise of eVTOL vehicles, which is critical to achieving the public acceptance needed to begin commercial service.

The impact of COVID-19 on manufacturers and venture capital could slow the rollout of UAM. Airbus and Boeing are being forced to triage their R&D to preserve cash, and Embraer could be hit by the cost impact of the aborted commercial-aircraft joint venture with Boeing.

But Joby was fortunate in having secured its $590 million Series C funding round in January, before the crisis began. Backed by Toyota, the startup looks likely to stay on track for certification. Hyundai’s new eVTOL program remains well-funded, and Karem Aircraft’s eVTOL spinoff Overair had secured the backing of South Korea’s Hanwha Systems before the COVID-19 outbreak.

As the world recovers from the novel coronavirus, the Agility Prime program could prove pivotal by providing an Air Force “seal of approval” for companies that can demonstrate their vehicles’ capabilities in flight testing. This is expected to help with raising capital.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.