By Philip Butterworth-Hayes
Many forecasts for the advanced air mobility (AAM) and urban air mobility (UAM) industries suggest that 2024 will be the year of infrastructure development. With full-scale commercialisation of the industry due to start in earnest in 2025/2026 this is not exactly a bold statement.
For most in the industry, the infrastructure development challenge is broadly the same as the aircraft development challenge: will all the essential regulatory, standards and certification requirements and processes be in place to align with industry’s business plans? No surprises, please. On the infrastructure side there are some peripheral issues – a lack of funding, not enough public consultation, a lack of coordination between the major stakeholders (especially non-aviation stakeholders) and some missing certification criteria for vertiport and UAS traffic management (UTM) systems – but all these can be sorted out (arguably) if the first UAM operations can be based on existing aviation infrastructure.
In July 2023 the FAA published its Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) Implementation Plan Near-term (Innovate28) Focus with an Eye on the Future of AAM report, which sets out a high-level view on how urban and advanced air mobility services will be deployed in the USA by 2028, the Innovate28 (I28) timeline. According to the document: “Initial AAM operations in the 2025-2028 timeframe are expected to primarily use existing airports and heliports (with modification where required to meet FAA’s interim guidance for vertiport design)…. It is unlikely, but possible, that specially built vertiports will be available in this timeframe.”
We now have a good view of how, when and where these initial UAM/AAM ecosystems will be introduced in the USA. So, do bottom-up industry infrastructure plans tie in with the high-level, top-down view of the FAA?
The answer is “yes” – they broadly do.
There are currently 46 city/region AAM/UAM programmes under development in the USA, according to the updated January 2024 edition of the Global AAM/UAM Market Map, which charts progress in AAM/UAM market developments among 170 cities and regions around the world. Of these, of these, 15 are imminent – that is, planned to start operations within the next three years. The good news is that almost all these initial programmes are based on enlarging small municipal airports or developing vertiports at larger hubs, where heliport operations are currently based. There are also ten city-centre vertiport facilities planned within the next three years but, again, these are in cities which have downtown heliports available for adaption to vertiport operations.
There are some exceptions. Joby signed an agreement with urban real estate company Reef Technology in 2021 to develop rooftop take-off and landing sites on parking structures in the Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco Bay Area metropolitan areas. And Skyway Technologies and Berg Holdings (BH), a Sausalito-based Bay Area real estate developer, in October 2023 announced a strategic partnership to accelerate the development of a comprehensive network of UAM vertiports in the Bay Area, between Mountain View, Marin County, Sonoma County, San Jose, and locations along the East Bay I-680 corridor.
But 90% or more of the first UAM programmes in the USA will be based in existing infrastructure. The first routes (discarding any tourist flights) are mainly city-centre to airport operations. These include downtown Chicago – O’Hare (32 km); DFW – downtown Dallas (30km); DFW – Addison Airport (28km); Downtown Addison – Addison Airport (3km); Downtown Addison – Love Field (11km); Miami International airport – Miami Beach Convention Centre (16 km); New York – Newark Liberty International Airport (24km).
Initial UAM/AAM routes in the USA are being pioneered by several different consortia, made up of a complex mix of different industry stakeholders.
|Industry driver organizations behind US infrastructure plans
This way of developing UAM/AAM infrastructure is completely at odds with everywhere else in the world. In Paris, France, there are now 36 government, quasi-government and private-sector organisations preparing the city for UAM services for the Summer Olympics this year. This is both too many (there are at least four airspace integration organisations involved despite the first flights being VFR operations) and not enough, given the political objections to the plans raised by local authorities in November 2023. In Osaka, Japan, a consortium of 12 private/public organisations has been organised to bring eVTOL services to the public at the 2025 Osaka/Kansai Expo, including local authorities.
But in the USA, most infrastructure development consortia comprise little more than three participants.
This is probably fine for initial UAM operations, flying VFR routes between operational airports. There is some evidence now that UAM flights, at least initially, will not pose insuperable problems for controllers at large airport hubs, though this premise has to be tested in the real world. A very timely exercise recently conducted by Joby and NASA along with pilots and air traffic controllers, simulated traffic patterns at Dallas Love Field (DAL) and DFW airports, representative of complex and busy airspace, virtually tested the ability to integrate up to 120 eVTOL operations – arrivals or departures – per hour from DFW’s Central Terminal Area, alongside the airport’s existing traffic. Up to 45 simulated eVTOL aircraft were simultaneously aloft in DFW’s Class B airspace during the activity.
But the real US infrastructure challenge will come once the initial proving flights have been established and it is time to scale.
Miami will be the USA’s largest UAM/AAM hub and is host to at least six industry consortia planning to set up operations there. The city has several initiatives underway to manage at least some of these consortia’s plans – including the Miami University led Miami Engineering Autonomous Mobility Initiative (MEAMI) which also comprises Eve and a 2022 AAM planning memorandum of understanding between the city and Supernal. But the technical requirements to integrate UTM and vertiport operations planning not just to establish but scale these competing consortia is probably one of the greatest UAM infrastructure challenges in the world today.
|The AAM consortia planning eVTOL-based operations in Miami
Which does not mean to say it will not happen.
But as many new aircraft manufacturers have found to their cost, the effort required for a first flight is hugely time consuming and expensive but pales in comparison to fully commercialising the programme. The USA is on course to have its aviation infrastructure in place for the initial commercial operations. But scaling it is an entirely different and more complex operation, especially without a broad base of partners to help share the load.
|A unique, comprehensive and up-to-date view of the global AAM/UAM market
Country-by-country, city-by-city, the 338-page Global AAM/UAM Market Map lists the routes, the route-lengths, the key industry players from eVTOL and vertiport manufacturers to local authority partners, the programmes which are clearly defined and funded, to speculative, over-the horizon opportunities. For more information about the database of programmes and to download some January 2024 sample pages please click here.