After several ‘pandemic postponements’, Amsterdam Drone Week (ADW) finally got underway at the end of March, and as my colleague Herve Drévillon was speaking at one of the panel sessions, it was a great opportunity for me to sit in on other sessions and assess how far the drone industry has evolved since the onset of Covid. Having worked on Detect and Avoid standardisation it was no big surprise to see many of the challenges previously highlighted in our white paper like integration vs. separation or lack of standards and regulation now resolved or having a clear roadmap to resolution. It is clear that the industry has moved on from technicalities like “How to ensure this is safe?” to practicalities like “What are people going to say if I build a vertiport on their roof?” and these practicalities deserve a closer look, particularly when it comes to the business case.
According to EASA’s Social acceptance study, public acceptance challenges apply everywhere, with only minor variations between regions. The outcomes of the SUPER study back that up, for example, one European city plans to limit drone use to public services because of its citizens’ privacy concerns. Similarly, despite widespread awareness raising and discussion, the demand for UAM in Central Europe is negligible.
Time and again, speakers at ADW returned to the topic of public acceptance and public education as priorities for action. First, we need to strengthen community engagement – the public needs to experience the design of eVTOLs, their noise levels and see how vertiports operate. A great example is Urban-Air Port’s Air One (first vertiport) launch, which colleagues attended a couple days ago in Coventry, UK and which is considered as an ideal location, being close to a train station and other intermodal transport options. According to Urban-Air Port, the vertiport “…will be open to public with tours provided by the Urban-Air Port team.”. I think this is an excellent approach to engage with local communities and showcase the cutting-edge technology. Similarly, Aéroports de Paris and Volocopter used recent trials at Pontoise aerodrome to start engaging with local communities.
The UAM industry is pushing towards implementation (albeit on a small scale) and investors are asking for concrete evidence that the use cases are viable and the business plan positive. However, uncertainty caused by strong public concern and a lack of operational experience only raises further questions for investors, who point out that UAM manufacturers have had a high spending rate but so far no operations in place.
Even infrastructure investors like the EIB, are looking for viable operations as proof that the market is profitable, pointing out that when it comes to infrastructure, authorities need to tell investors how it is going to be organised. Until then there is too much uncertainty for investors and practical difficulties for UAM manufacturers to provide satisfactory payback timescales.
For any new industry investment cases are complex, with growth forecasts, use cases, regulatory environments and geo-political situations all key. The UAM industry is no exception, as my colleague Eric Denèle  wrote last year.
What links these two challenges of public acceptance and investor confidence? It’s the use cases. Whether public sector services to remote locations, medical response, freight deliveries or high-volume inner-city transport, these are the starting point for the business case, the regulators, the investors and of course the manufacturers. Airbus and Volocopter recently changed the design of their aircraft to an aerodynamic platform (wing) to serve different use cases (longer range), while others like Ehang are sticking to rotary concepts. How realistic are the envisaged use cases? How visible are they to a doubting public?
There are at least two use cases that communities will tolerate, even celebrate – medical transportation and shipping to remote areas . These use cases are most likely to be accepted by the public in the short term for the same reason as we tolerate an ambulance breaking the speed limit or a noisy helicopter carrying engineers to an oil rig. If the community understands an emergency or lack of options, it is happier to accept disruption or indeed increased risk. And for medical uses cases the earliest investors will most likely be governmental bodies, which will help address the investment question.
Sustainable or not?
However, when it comes to higher volume urban operations the use cases and forecasts are less clear. They will need active city ‘sponsors’ and a supportive public. According to Tassilo Wanner, Chairman of the Advisory Board of Lilium, the final price for a UAM trip should be affordable to everyone. Maybe not on a daily basis but at some point in time, everyone should be able to afford a UAM trip . This is a reasonable estimate; however it implies that UAM will not become a mass mode of transportation in the short term and its benefits will be rather small in scale. Maybe even too small to be recognised by non-consumers. Vertiports, although small compared to airports, will have a considerable impact on already crowded cities. Once UAM starts occupying urban spaces the public will start asking questions about how it improves the quality of their lives, not just of those onboard. The argument from operators and manufacturers is already known – fully electric flying vehicles are environmentally friendly as they do not produce emissions and reduce road congestion  which leads to improved local air quality and shorter commuting times. The difficulty with these arguments is they are built on very optimistic assumptions. Already between 2019 and 2020 market forecasts were being downgraded, partly to reflect pandemic impacts, but also recognising the challenges the market faces. Morgan Stanley, for example, adjusted its market valuation down from $1.5tn by 2030 to $1tn by 2040.. Are these arguments then just a form of greenwashing ie hiding a commercial business case behind environmental benefits? It seems to me that UAM has the potential to be greener … but you need green energy to have green UAM and a more in-depth and end-to-end environmental impact evaluation must be done.
The Amsterdam Drone Week event clearly showed that the business case, and thus the future, of UAM rests on its acceptance by city residents. The UAM concept is not just fancy taxis flying across Paris or London anymore. The term evolves into AAM (Advanced Air Mobility) or even RAM (Regional Air Mobility) and also comprises mobility of goods, which has the potential to be much stronger use case in response to public opposition and investor doubts. The industry has a very good understanding of the more technical challenges and a clear view on how to tackle them. But will the general public perceive these new modes of transportation as yet another nuisance or as a way to address congestion and the need to decarbonise transport in urban areas? We now need actual projects to start to help the public understand the potential of UAM and its difference from the helicopter traffic they might have experienced. It is also critical for these projects to demonstrate, and preferably in a quantified manner, the benefits that UAM can bring to communities. As an engineering company, Egis can testify that these are the basics of any mobility project, whether it involves ground, underground, sea or air modes of transport.
- ADW panel: UAM Funding & Investment governance and finance
- EASA Study on societal acceptance of UAM in Europe
- Urban Air Mobility – Should I stay or should I go now?
- ADW panel: Drone and vertiport development challenges and opportunities
- Skycities, skyways, skytaxis: dream or destiny?
- What role for satellites in UAM infrastructure planning?