We are already seeing investments pouring into drone and autonomous cars technology. There is parallel research on passenger drones and pilotless electrical vertical take-off and landing (eVOTL) aircraft. Several companies joined the fray to develop the first commercial jetpacks, flying motorbikes, and personal air taxis.
Venture capitalists, aviation, and auto corporations are staking their claim in this burgeoning industry, which may be as much as USD 1.5 Tn by 2040. Uber also threw its hat in the ring with its ambitious Uber Elevate to provide air taxi service, now offloaded to Joby Aviation.
Meanwhile, aviation authorities are yet to iron out policies and safety standards to govern the new realm of transport, considering that about 160,000 commercial taxis could be up in the air by 2050, generating USD 90 Bn per year.
Making the Future Possible Soon
The future unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) business will have innovative technology, software, certification expertise, and services to support manufacturers and service providers. Here is what’s happening in terms of technology.
- Electrification – Like cars that are turning to electricity, the aerospace industry will have better motors, electric storage, better batteries, and distribution systems.
- Software – Advanced software and algorithms, and then artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) contribute to the autonomous ground and air vehicle roadmap.
- Connectivity – A good connectivity like on the ground will enable remotely communicate, manage, and fly vehicles from anywhere on Earth.
- Sensor and analytics – Sensors collect data like visual, positioning, environmental quality, etc., fed to machine models to determine response to environmental conditions, what objects it should prioritize or avoid, and where to fly. We can use the data for the post-flight analysis also.
- Computer vision – It works through high-performance, onboard image processing performed with a neural network, a layered architecture that implements algorithms in machine learning. It enables aerial vehicles to detect, classify, and track objects.
Electrification, software, and connectivity enable the creation of electrically powered semi-autonomous vehicles that are quiet and environmentally sustainable, meeting the demands for new ways of traveling and delivering goods and services.
Air Mobility Infrastructure Requirements
Unlike cars which take you from point to point, air mobility solutions would take you from one vertiport to another. Hence, we need three critical infrastructure assets:
- Vertiports and vertistops facilitate the landings and take-offs of UAVs, including boarding and deboarding points for passengers.
- Receiving vessels like lockers or other storage facilities to deliver packages.
- The charging stations and docks at heliports and vertistops.
Many private companies and investors are exploring the assets required to make air mobility a reality.
Various governments have been interested, with public agencies investing in developing infrastructure for drone use cases. Investigation into integrating these systems into the existing air-traffic management system is underway.
Challenges Tech Players and Investors Must Overcome
Companies must begin plans to design, obtain space, and construct infrastructure and avoid holding back until air mobility solutions hit the market.
Investors and private companies must work with the public sector to identify infrastructure requirements, including traffic-management infrastructure to receive packages or landing vehicles, and supporting technology such as automatic doors to admit drones into warehouses, etc.
Unmanned traffic management
Drone operators can identify obstacles and redirect flight paths during short-range flights since the vehicles remain within their visual line of sight. Unmammed aerial systems (UAS) that do not fly upwards of 400 feet above ground could use traditional aviation’s air-traffic management system.
Drones traveling to longer distances require unmanned traffic management (UTM), radar systems, beacons, flight-management services, communication systems, and servers to coordinate, organize, and manage UAS traffic. Any investment into navigation systems and UTM, different for unmanned traffic management as of 2021, is still in the pilot phase.
UTM development and airspace management
For UTM and infrastructure to function, it requires significant investment and testing. Besides, the industry must win the trust and support of the general public while looking into regulatory hurdles.
Sometimes, these freight-delivery drones and passenger transporters need to share the same airspace as commercial and general aviation routes, which warrants the development of an integrated airspace management system.
In the future, UAS and eVTOLs will have to interact with a variety of competing UTM solutions when traveling to different areas. Stakeholders must ensure that UTM systems are interoperable and communicate with the air traffic management and each other.
Next Step for Stakeholders
Despite the investment into aerial vehicles and delivery drones, stakeholders have not given a thought to the associated infrastructure and costs. Should they retrofit existing structures or build new infrastructure? How will they profit from their investments?
For instance, companies may charge other companies a fee to use their vertiports or restrict access to check the competition. Are the routes flexible, or should UTM systems use the routes prescribed?
Government officials can collaborate with private companies, UTM developers, and citizen interest groups to picture infrastructure requirements, which will vary based on population density.
Investors, which today is helmed by the likes of Ford, Daimler, or Volkswagen, are exploring new asset classes with an investment of USD 2 Mn to USD 200 Mn range for a vertiport, based on features, size, no. of vehicles accommodated, location, and the building.
Additionally, most metropolitan areas must have at least 100 or more of varying sizes, just like the suburban and subway infrastructure, warranting the participation of the local, state, and federal agencies who will integrate with the broader mobility strategies and objectives, such as reducing commuting times or reducing air pollution.
To conclude, with multiple companies developing on different technologies and approaches, the government could collaborate with them to define the design and create technical standards ensuring safety, reliability, and interoperability between UTM systems.
The size of investment size notwithstanding, the air mobility segment could present exciting opportunities for private equity funds, institutional investors, and automakers.
Draup provides actionable insights of key auto players in the race for air mobility solutions with information on product/service requirements. Service providers can use these strategic signals to create niche sales proposals to help prospective auto players fulfill their intentions.