Envision a world where passengers use urban air taxis called personal aerial vehicles (PAVs) to commute from their homes to their offices. They use a smart phone app to call a PAV. The PAV is a large drone that can pilot itself to the passenger’s desired destination. Think this world is far-fetched? It is closer to reality than you think.
The enabling technologies that will make passenger transport in large drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) a reality already are in existence. Advances in automotive technologies have been enablers for large UAVs. For example, improvements in battery technology for electric cars have applicability for use in electric Vertical Take Off and Landing aircraft. Improvements in carbon frame technologies used in automotive manufacturing have enabled lighter weight airframes. Improvements in sensor technologies for automotive collision avoidance systems in self-driving cars have been enablers for sense and avoid systems in autonomous aircraft.
Today, there are many companies researching, developing and building personal aerial vehicles. This is not surprising because the autonomy revolution is underway in all technology areas, including transportation. There are many automobile companies who have built and are testing self-driving cars with varying degrees of autonomy on roadways throughout the world. Similarly, many aviation companies have built, are building and are testing personal aerial vehicles with varying degrees of autonomy. Some of these companies include A^3 by Airbus LLC, Zee Aero, Lillium, eHang, Joby and many others.
Commercial interest in personal aerial vehicles is driven by the convergence of consumer and commercial demands. The on-demand economy has already affected transportation with consumers increasingly demanding automation and ease of use. This has led to the widespread use of Uber, Lyft, and other on-demand taxi services. On the commercial side, new companies have emerged to take advantage of legal and regulatory changes permitting the commercial use of small drones.
In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration issued Part 107 regulations to allow small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (sUAVs) weighing 55 pounds or less to be used for commercial operations by operators with certain restrictions.
Commercial interest in personal aerial vehicles is driven by the convergence of consumer and commercial demands
The Part 107 regulations do not permit operations over restricted airspace or beyond the visual line of sight of the remote operator piloting the sUAV. The main rationale for these restrictions is an underlying safety concern. Some companies have succeeded in obtaining exceptions to these restrictions, after providing evidence of appropriate safeguards. On balance, the Part 107 regulations have propelled the commercial drone industry forward. For example, new business models have been created around the use of small drones for aerial photography such as, inspecting cell towers, railway lines, and commercial real estate. More sophisticated business models have emerged around the use of drones in the agriculture, insurance, and cargo transport industries. These new businesses have generated more interest in the commercial use of larger drones.
While technology has been moving rapidly and regulations concerning the commercial operations of UAVs are in place, the relative nascence of a legal, regulatory, and public policy framework for commercial operations with large UAVs presents challenges for the development of the personal aerial vehicle market. In late 2016, the FAA issued Part 23 regulations that provide a framework for vehicle certification of large UAVs (and other small aircraft with electric or hybrid propulsion systems). These regulations provide a pathway for a vehicle manufacturer to obtain an airworthiness certificate for a large UAV provided it meets the FAA’s vehicle performance requirements. While the exact nature of any unanswered questions can only be determined after a vehicle undergoes an evaluation process under Part 23, these Part 23 regulations are significant because it shows the many companies developing large UAVs or PAVs that there is a pathway to vehicle certification.
There remain several significant challenges to the wide scale use of PAVs. First, the infrastructure and operational framework that would permit the use of large UAVs for personal transport is not yet in existence. Although the air traffic infrastructure to integrate large UAVs into the national airspace in a scalable way has been the subject of a NASA project, it is still a work in progress. It’s clear that in order for a scalable use of large UAVs for passenger transport, flight operations beyond the visual line of sight and overcrowded urban areas will eventually have to be permitted.
In terms of physical infrastructure, vertiports allowing large UAVs take off and land in urban areas, along with charging stations for the batteries and passenger or cargo loading and unloading facilities are needed in order for personal aerial vehicles to be commercially feasible. Developing these necessary underlying systems in the U.S. will require coordination between the developing PAV industry, the FAA and various state and local interests to insure that safety issues, as well as the public interest in noise abatement and similar nuisance concerns, are addressed.
The final challenge to the introduction of PAVs relates to consumers and resonates with the concerns being raised about self-driving cars. It will doubtless take time and experience for the ordinary person to feel comfortable about getting in a pilotless air taxi at the top of a downtown office building and flying to the nearest airport. But make it affordable, reliable, and safe and the future could be now.