NASA Articulates Vision For Regional Air Mobility

NASA regional air mobility map
Credit: NASA

To succeed, urban air mobility (UAM) requires multiple technological and operational transformations to come together.

But through targeted technology investments, regional air mobility can offer early benefits for communities, industry and investors, a new NASA white paper has concluded. 

To realize the vision of UAM as a mass transportation system, technologies ranging from batteries and autonomy to airspace automation and advanced manufacturing will have to advance in parallel.

By making use of thousands of existing but underutilized airports for mid-distance trips of 50-500 mi., RAM would reduce demands on aircraft technology and airspace integration, decoupling the dependencies that make scaling-up a challenge.

“NASA’s role in the development of this white paper is to articulate a consistent and complete vision for how regional air mobility could provide safe, convenient and sustainable air transportation,” said Kevin Antcliff, lead author and NASA’s deputy lead for emerging applications and technologies.

The U.S. has more than 5,000 public-use airports, but only 30 serve more than 70% of all travelers, the paper notes. “Most Americans live within 16 min. of an airport. RAM’s vision is to make these local airports the community hubs they were always meant to be,” NASA said.

“Regional scheduled air passenger service today accounts for approximately 3% of total air traffic. The economics of serving these routes is challenging with the aircraft and operational models that have been used in the past,” the paper said.

“If an affordable, efficient, robust and environmentally friendly aircraft network was implemented across these thousands of airports, more people would be able to choose convenient air travel over cars for mid-distance trips around 50-500 mi.,” NASA concluded.

The report suggests targeted investments in RAM technologies, business models and airport renewable-energy generation would complement and accelerate the wider move to advanced air mobility, including urban air taxis and unmanned cargo aircraft.

“Early returns are feasible from a variety of independent technologies and services that will amplify each other as RAM grows,” NASA said. “Success is not contingent on all technologies fully maturing before meaning revenue is realized.” 

“When innovations are contingent on too many pieces working together, the probability of successful implementation diminishes,” the report warned. “Instead, RAM’s scale will simply multiply as each technology and capability is introduced. Crucially, each new component moves the needle by itself without relying on the simultaneous coupling to other new technologies.”

Contributors to the white paper included companies targeting the RAM market with electric conventional- and short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, including Ampaire, Electra and MagniX, as well as startups Reliable Robotics and Xwing, which are focused on automating regional cargo aircraft.

Conventionally powered aircraft can comprise an early component of the RAM market because they do not require new technologies but can incorporate them as they become available, said white paper contributor Explorer Aircraft, which is developing the turbine-powered Explorer 500T.

NASA plans to support systems analyses, development of critical technologies and investigation of novel aircraft configurations for RAM missions. The agency also will support efforts by other agencies, including the FAA and Energy Department, on RAM safety assurance and renewable-energy generation.

“​Due to the convergence of electric propulsion, autonomous systems, new operational models, and an already established infrastructure, RAM’s vision for air transportation will provide a convenient, affordable, and community-friendly regional travel option,” Antcliff said.

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.