By Philip Butterworth-Hayes
The unfavourable reaction from Paris local politicians across the political divide to the launch of electric air taxi operations during the 2024 Olympic Games has taken many in the industry by surprise. The reaction is in stark contrast to that of New York Mayor Eric Adams, who just a few days ago was delighted to announce plans to revamp the city’s main heliport for eVTOL flights.
It is impossible to make generalisations about public views of ubiquitous drone and air taxi operations until they actually take to the sky in large numbers. At the moment, for every study which shows a positive view of the drone and eVTOL sectors there is another which shows exactly the opposite.
A May 2021 study from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) into public reaction to drones and eVTOLs in six European regions report “the vast majority of 83% feel positive (very positive or rather positive) about introduction of UAM overall. Only 17% with negative perception and minority share of 3% are very negative and probably hard to persuade of introduction of UAM.” This is in stark contrast to the “Sky Limits” study from the Technical University Berlin and Wissenschaft im Dialog GmbH a few months earlier which revealed: “most Germans oppose the use of delivery drones (55%) and air taxis (62%) implying a clear rejection of current proposals to develop urban airspaces for transport purposes.”
While Germany is in many ways a special case – where political debate around the use of armed drones, for example, is particularly vociferous – opposition to the emerging industry stems from seven areas of concern: safety, privacy, elitism, environmental irresponsibility (noise and battery lifecycle costs), links to military drone use and ethical considerations, loss of jobs and fear of autonomy.
At first glance, there appears to be a clear divide between political parties of the left – somewhat skeptical of the claimed environmental benefits and suspicious of any transport system aimed at an elite – and those on the right – libertarian and overtly supportive of entrepreneurial efforts, especially if they do not require government funding.
According to a recent paper hosted by the left-of-centre think tank The Center for American Progress: “Flying cars will undermine democracy”:
“The inevitable reality is that flying cars will confer advantages on direct users while exacerbating the geographic isolation of elites—a spatial manifestation of deepening inequality that undermines the shared experiences that are necessary to sustain democracy.”
A briefing document on advanced air mobility and drones from the European Union Against Aircraft Nuisances accuses the industry of “health-washing”: “Drones and air taxis can be very beneficial in dealing with health emergencies, in delivering to remote places where roads and railways may be poor and in photographing sites for new developments but the industry is clear: the business case, certainly in Europe, is built on commercial deliveries of things like meals, coffees and even beers.”
From the many studies which have been carried out into the issue, public opinion around drones and eVTOLs – which is not always in sync with local government representatives – can vary enormously between generations and types of communities. It is not always a simple left-right divide. Remote, rural communities will often have a very different view to benefits of eVTOL and drone services from those living in the centre of cities. Younger people have less fear of autonomous systems than older people. In general.
The most wounding attacks on the drone and eVTOL industries are those which seek to undermine their principal benefits, especially when they come from professional organisations without an avert political purpose.
In March 2023 the UK’s Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) published a paper How the eVTOL industry overpromised on green:
“There is also the question of whether replacing congested ground traffic with aircraft, especially in an increasingly electrified motor industry, would actually deliver any green benefits at all. A 2019 study led by students at the University of Michigan led to what initially seems to offer relatively favourable results. Three passengers in an eVTOL would emit 6 per cent less emissions than an electric car carrying 1.54 passengers over 100km and 52 per cent less than a petrol car.….However, when delving deeper, these figures become more worrisome. Firstly, if assuming the same number of passengers, the eVTOL is a far worse performer than an electric vehicle and not much better than a petrol car.” The IET paper concludes: “There is no reason to believe flying cars will improve terrestrial mobility.”
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) is concerned about the speed with which regulators are being encouraged to certify autonomous air taxi operations, according to another briefing paper “Big things are happening in Europe”. “ALPA is deeply concerned that eVTOL vehicles might someday be remotely piloted or perhaps even be capable of autonomous flight. Regulators in Europe are already considering the idea of reducing the number of pilots on the flight deck in some types of flight operations, and aircraft manufacturers are also looking at ways to incorporate artificial intelligence into aircraft systems.”
So far none of these challenges has appeared to make a significant dent in the advance of the eVTOL sector, mainly because most people in the world are unaware of its existence. Drones are more of a known quantity and generate more polarised opinion. But what is clear is that merely positioning drones and eVTOLs as forces for good will not be enough to convince many communities that their benefits will outweigh their disadvantages in an era of increasing social division.
The Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies is researching public perceptions of drones and eVTOLs and the conclusions of the research so far is that even when acting overtly in the public good, both industries can be the focus of deep feelings among the public, whose views can be easily swayed.
“In the Swiss context, in 2019, the Canton of Geneva took the “UAM Initiative” to develop a certified prototype air ambulance as part of its urban air mobility strategies,” according to the research conclusion. “This heavy-load drone (2 tonnes) was envisioned to be used for the non-urgent transport of patients between the University Hospital of Geneva and the Hospital of Trois-Chênes….This announcement generated heated public debates among Swiss citizens. They expressed reservations about whether this is an effective and necessary way to transport patients or evacuate victims in a populated urban setting. In the Canton of Zurich, after two consecutive drone incidents in 2019, the public opinion towards the previously highly appraised Swiss Post drones carrying lab samples between hospitals reached its lowest. Despite the efforts made for safety and flight permissions, the two accidents – out of some 3,000 flights – risked setting back the entire industry.”
While both the drone and eVTOL industries are clear about the importance of public consultation there is yet no single and authoritative resource where a curious member of the public, anywhere in the world, can go to for a clear view of what is coming and how communities will be impacted, both positively and negatively. Without such a resource there is a vacuum into which a confusing and contradictory mix of views is being poured.