Eduardo Domínguez-Puerta, head of Urban Air Mobility at Airbus, says: "Let's stop dreaming and let's start making." Image: AIAA

Airbus presents air taxi strategy at AIAA SciTech Forum

Equipment & systems Passengers • air-taxi Policy • regulations • airspace

In a keynote speech [video] at the SciTech Forum of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in San Diego, California on January 9, Eduardo Domínguez-Puerta, the head of Urban Air Mobility (UAM) at Airbus, outlined the group’s air taxi long-term market assessment and strategy, saying “Let’s stop dreaming and let’s start making.”

Airbus created the UAM unit last June in Munich, Germany, with Domínguez-Puerta, a 17-year veteran of the aerospace giant who was previously chief operating officer (COO) of A3 by Airbus, the group’s Silicon Valley venture. His role is to formulate Airbus’ long-term strategy while coordinating existing UAM initiatives within the group, including the Vahana and CityAirbus air taxi “technical demonstrators” and the Voom helicopter shuttle service.

Domínguez-Puerta began by talking about the 30 current and future megacities which will be built up in the next decade, nearly all of which are outside Europe and the US, and many of which do not have modern transport infrastructure in place. There is congestion which will worsen, he said, citing the example of São Paulo, Brazil, where airport-to-city transfer is up to two hours by car but only 12 minutes by helicopter. He cited ground infrastructure comparative construction costs — highway, railway, metro, Hyperloop — each progressively more costly to build compared to air. As an example of “leapfrogging” types of infrastructure, he compared mobile phone networks instead of landlines, arguing that megacities upgrading transport infrastructure may well include urban air mobility infrastructure in “multi-modal” investment.

Next, Domínguez-Puerta spoke of the mobility-on-demand business models of giants Uber, Lyft, 99 (Latin America), Careem (the Middle East & North Africa), Ola (India), Grab (Southeast Asia), and Didi Chuxing (China). He compared them to the 1980s software houses which challenged and ultimately displaced hardware giants such as IBM and HP by positioning themselves between the manufacturers and the consumers. Thirty years later, he said, it is the software giants who are turning around to build hardware. He related a conversation with the CEO of Audi where they agreed the car manufacturer and Airbus were the hardware manufacturers and the mobility-on-demand platforms the software companies. “If we do nothing”, according to Domínguez-Puerta,

these companies will start building hardware very soon. I think it’s easier for companies like us to shift our position on the value chain and try to become service providers, rather than these types of companies building a whole automotive industry or aeronautical industry. We should learn from history, and I think both sectors, automotive and aeronautical, should move into services. It’s not traditionally our turf. If you think of Airbus, if you think of Boeing or Embraer or other manufacturers, we are B2B [business-to-business] manufacturers. We are not used to being B2C [business-to-consumer] businesses. And I think that needs to change in our minds. Urban Air Mobility is part of the solution […] I think it will take time. And we need to be realistic. However, if we strive to capture 3 to 5 percent of the passengers who transit through these big megacity airports, that closes the business case. And that doesn’t take two decades.

Addressing the concern that air taxis will be only for the select few who can afford them, the executive spoke of the role of well-heeled early adopters for the new technologies of their eras, from the bicycle to the smartphone.

Domínguez-Puerta says new helicopter configurations — quadcopters, tilting wings — will improve passenger safety and are now possible due to developing technologies such as distributed electrical propulsion which eliminates the fundamental safety weakness of single rotor craft, commoditized structural materials such as carbon fiber composites which reduce weight, and advanced avionics which optimize fly-by-wire digitally managed aircraft control and can communicate with Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems. Domínguez-Puerta called today’s ATM systems “a bottleneck,… a barrier to entry” for air taxis. Although there is change — the executive cited the companies Thales and Indra — radar-based systems in use at this time will not be enough. ATM needs to increase capacity to integrate an ever-growing number of autonomous flying vehicles (UAVs) of all sizes, and that will mean automation, he indicated. Urban infrastructure will need to develop the electrification already underway for cars for air taxi charging solutions.

Domínguez-Puerta showed a “crystal ball” roadmap, a timeline to the mid-2030s. Urban Air Mobility already is a reality today, he said, citing Airbus’ Voom helicopter service in São Paulo and Mexico City, but then added it is not new: in 1953, New York Airways began a modern helicopter passenger service [Bloomberg Businessweek explainer video] which provided airport-to-airport and airport-to-city-center shuttle flights which ran for twenty-five years, but never recovered from a fatal accident in 1977 on the roof heliport of the 59-story Pan Am Building. “Safety is key”, he insisted, but that’s not all: existing helicopters cannot be operated economically for UAM at small scale, but a new generation of electrically powered craft in differing configurations will be more economical. Crucially, he believes the safety issue will be solved by keeping eVTOL (Electrical Vertical Takeoff & Landing) aircraft manned with pilots at first, and switched later to unmanned as a second step, when reliability is established. Concerning airspace, he noted that there is movement by regulators: EASA has released a public consultation on special condition for VTOL and in the US, the FAA is looking at how parts 23 and 27 can be updated to certify new aircraft configurations. “Very soon, we are going to have a regulatory framework to certify those vehicles, and then the race will begin — not before,” he said:

If you read those draft regulations, they don’t talk much about autonomy. They talk about optionally piloted, self-piloted. But that will probably require a second step, means of compliance and demonstrated safety. That is going to be huge, because you are going to remove the pilot from those vehicles and you’re going to put in a customer, which will probably increase revenues and reduce costs. And that will have an economical impact, and will scale with industrialization through 2030. My view is that this is a $50 billion accumulated market. Out of that $50 billion, less than half is going to go to the vehicles. Which reinforces the idea that people like us should not just focus on the vehicles, we should look at the rest of the value chain.

Domínguez-Puerta enumerated links in the value chain, all of which need to be profitable (or alternatively, subsidized) for the chain to work:

  • Urban aircraft — design, development and production
  • Support & service — maintenance, repair, overhaul, spare parts
  • Flight operations — urban VTOL operation, acquisition or leasing of VTOLs
  • Air Traffic Management — develop and operate ATM solution for urban VTOLs
  • Ground infrastructure — installation and maintenance of VTOL pads
  • Passenger software solutions — booking applications for flight trips

The executive returned once more to the theme of safety, asserting that UAM vehicles need to be as safe as commercial aviation — or the Métro in Paris — to be accepted by the public. “I don’t think the startup approach — fail fast, fail cheap — works with aviation,” he declared. He also mentioned sustainability and environmental issues, pointing out the challenge of noise — how many decibels of the humming of drones and larger air taxis overhead will city dwellers accept? At what hours? He added, “Cities will only allow greener and quieter vehicles to operate.”

Domínguez-Puerta described the Airbus UAM portfolio of projects and demonstrators:

  • Skyways — a managed “system of systems” in the Port of Singapore with a c-drone operating Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) in air corridors to retrieve and deliver parcels, an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM or U-space) learning project
  • Voom — a traditional helicopter taxi service in Brazil and Mexico using an Uber-style mobility-on-demand smartphone app business model, interestingly not necessarily with Airbus helicopters. Over 10,000 passengers have used the service with an average of 50 per day in São Paulo. The company hopes to extend the model to the world’s megacities; these networks will form the basis of unmanned air taxi services
  • Vahana — a self-piloted eVTOL demonstrator: a one-passenger autonomous, distributed electrical propulsion, tilted-wing vehicle, currently being flight tested in Pendleton, Oregon
  • CityAirbus — A 4-passenger wingless quadcopter with ducted rotors which will be a test bed for propulsion systems in southern Germany, currently in ground tests with flight tests planned in the coming weeks
  • Pop.Up [video] — a 2-passenger car chassis/nacelle/rotors concept vehicle, a collaboration with Audi and Italdesign to test modularity. The nacelle flies as a VTOL from the airport to the city center where it lands on a wheeled chassis; the rotors structure disengages and flies away, and the vehicle becomes a self-driving car. Airbus has flown a quarter scale model and is inspired by the concept of the standard 40-foot container used in shipping; Domínguez-Puerta cited the book The Box That Changed The World.

While describing the autonomy and sense-and-avoid features of “my lovely Vahana”, Domínguez-Puerta stated that there are 118 companies besides Airbus building similar vehicles — because, he says, there is a lot of venture capital available, and it doesn’t take a lot of money to build a prototype. However, he said, “none of them were born within an existing regulatory framework. They are technical demonstrators… they are a way for us to learn how to create a safe vehicle for the future.” In particular, he said, the sense-and-avoid technology in the Vahana will likely find its way into Airbus helicopters and airplanes.

Airbus has other unmanned projects in its Defence and Space division: the Zephyr S, a high-altitude solar-powered drone reportedly being tested in Wyndham, Australia by Facebook as a High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) platform, replacing the cancelled Aquila; and a range of military drones, one of which, the Vertivision Surveillance Rotocraft VSR700, is based on Helicoptères Guimbal’s Cabri G2 helicopter with 10 hours of flight time carrying a 250 kg (550 lb) payload.

In a Q&A following his presentation, Domínguez-Puerta commented on eventual consolidation in the industry, reminding the audience that Airbus monitors 118 competitors:

I’m very bad at making predictions, especially about the future, but if I had to guess, and if I look at our economic models, I think there’s going to be space for 5 or 6 types of configurations, manufacturers, whatever you want to call it. But more importantly, how do we get into that consolidation? And this is why I was mentioning before, the startup approach. Getting a group of engineers together and giving birth to a potential configuration will take you $5 to $10 million. Anybody can do that. It’s not a big commercial aviation program, where you need billions. And this is why we have so many. Bringing that to the next stage, where you get something actually flying will cost you $50 million. There’s a lot of space for that. Bringing that into certification and industrialization will bring you to the hundreds of millions, eventually $1 billion. I don’t think a lot of ventures will fund that. And I think that is why a lot of those startups are starting to see the wall, and this is why I think a lot of partnerships, eventually acquisitions, and also some of them will die.

Domínguez-Puerta had previously made interesting comments at the Farnborough Airshow in August, replying to a question [video] from Mike Bromfield of the Institute for Future Transport and Cities at Coventry University, stating that with Airbus’ integrated approach to innovation, the UAM unit was hiring atypical profiles for an aerospace company: urbanists, architects, AI and data analytics specialists, all for “smart cities” research. He identified airports as the “starting blocks” for air taxi services, with rivers and shorelines the likely sites for urban landing pad development.

Other notable companies active in urban air mobility prototyping and ecosystems include Boeing, Bell, Volocopter, Uber Elevate, Kitty Hawk, SureFly, and Terrafugia.