Urban air mobility approaches
HAI Heli-Expo 2019, held this past March in Atlanta, included a growing focus on Urban Air Mobility (UAM), most noticeably with the presence of Bell Flight’s full-scale Nexus aircraft design on display. The Nexus was first unveiled in early January 2019 at CES in Las Vegas. Discussions at Bell about developing an VTOL aircraft for Urban Air Mobility (UAM) began in earnest more than three years ago based on its FCX-001 concept helicopter, described by the company as a future technology and leveraged as a roadmap.
The Nexus illustrates how the company is also leveraging its experience in developing tiltrotor aircraft – like the V-22, V-247 and V-280 – for the benefits of flying in both airplane and VTOL mode. “We know a lot about why that is a good platform. They are very agile and very efficient [in terms of] speed and range,” says Levi Bilbrey, manager, creative services, Bell Flight, who is part of the team presenting the Nexus at Heli-Expo.
Bell tested its tilting ducts at full-scale power in an Ottawa, Ont., wind tunnel through a partnership with the Canadian government. Not strictly designed for thrust, the noticeably thick and deep ducts also provide ample lifting surface as airfoils surrounding a central wing. The ducts could also potentially provide ample sound suppression.
“Nexus is really just one of the configurations we have been exploring,” explains Bilbrey. “There are lots of different technologies we are looking at and obviously the partners we are bringing into the conversation have a lot to do with that.”
Nexus is to be powered by a hybrid-electric propulsion system being developed by Safran. The program’s other current development partners include EPS (batteries), Thales (flight control hardware and software), Moog (flight control actuation) and Garmin (avionics). This cooperation is a prime example of today’s UAM environment in which partnership agreements form far upstream, even relative to traditional rotorcraft developments.
The millions – potentially billions – of R&D dollars being invested by these aerospace giants signal UAM technology is moving at a pace that might be expected, given the potential to sell thousands of these new-class aircraft for metropolitan areas becoming more congested by the day. The UAM market is also drawing the attention of systems start-ups and a range of intriguing external-aviation players from automobile makers to elevator builders, citing Otis’ March 2019 agreement with Sikorsky and The Spaceship Company (Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft builder) – and, of course, Uber.
“This is near future. We are thinking five to 10 years at the most. We are looking at potential flight tests in the next few years and service by the mid-2020s. We want to lean in, lead it, but we want to make sure it is done right, make sure it is safe and make sure it is reliable,” says Bilbrey. “Bell knows how to make things well. We have been doing that for over 80 years. We want to make sure the experience is what it is supposed to be.”
The manufacturer’s view
Most major rotorcraft manufacturers, and their key suppliers in areas from engines and structures to avionics and interiors, are in an enviable position to contribute UAM systems under a favourable R&D environment. “When you have market desires and technologies that can merge, the speed at which these things come out historically is pretty impressive,” says Scott Drennan, VP of innovation at Bell Flight, during an eVTOL panel discussion at Heli-Expo organized by The Vertical Flight Society.
Drennan describes what has become a classic illustration of transportation progress captured on Fifth Avenue, New York: A picture taken on Easter morning in the year 1900 showing a single car among dozens of horse-and-buggy rigs, placed next to a second picture taken from the same spot on Easter morning 1913 showing a single horse-and-buggy among dozens of cars. “It is the same phenomenon… market demand and technology coming together at the same time.”
Zach Lovering, VP of UAM systems at Airbus, speaking on the same panel, relates UAM market desire to the same city. “There are roughly 1 1/2 million people living in Manhattan, but there are three million people who work there; and that is enabled by the fact that they have Skyscrapers,” he says. “The real question is what systems can be put in place today to take a two-hour commute that you might have and change it to 10 minutes.”
Airbus operates a scheduled helicopter service called Voom in São Paulo, Brazil, which provides the company with valuable data points for its UAM programs.
“The time it takes to drive from the airport to downtown São Paulo is about two hours. You can get in one of our helicopters today, through an app, say where you are, where you are going, and you’ll be at your destination in 10 minutes,” explains Lovering. “But even with a solution available based on helicopters, it is still out of reach for a lot of people.”
During Robinson Helicopter’s press conference at Heli-Expo, company president Kurt Robinson addresses a question about his attendance at Uber’s Elevate conference, which first brought the potential of flying taxis to life in 2017: “We have had some conversations with them. What is interesting to me, and everybody here who owns a helicopter, is that we are actually already there today. A helicopter can land anywhere.”
He points to the efficient design of the R44 and R66. Along these lines, Robinson describes how a California company recently installed an electric-propulsion engine on an R44, flying it for approximately 20 minutes and reaching a speed of around 80 knots. Robinson does note the clear positive externality of UAM-tech growth in terms of the potential development of more heliports, or vertiports in UAM parlance – one of the many infrastructure hurdles for UAM adoption.
Lovering points to advances in digital design manufacturing that can allow for more automated production and, therefore, significantly lower unit costs of VTOL aircraft, which can also drive efficiency through AI like autonomous operation. Airbus on March 11, 2019, unveiled a demonstration model of the CityAirbus, which it projects to be fully autonomous. The project started about three years ago and the Airbus UAM team, now up to 40 people, plans to begin CityAirbus test flights this summer near Ingolstadt, Germany.
CityAirbus in its current configuration features fixed-pitch propellers, presenting less mechanical complexity relative to Bell’s tilting-duct design. With its wings expected to open up to approximately 30 degrees above flat in forward flight, CityAirbus is to be powered by electric (eVTOL) propulsion via 140 kW Siemens direct-drive engines.
Current electric-propulsion systems, of course, provide little range and speed with less than favourable weight per kW output. Battery breakthroughs by Tesla, however, show the potential of pure electric transportation.
Perhaps more interestingly, the acceleration of Tesla’s cars hints at the significant potential advantages electric propulsion can provide to the rotor world in terms of immediate torque. It is a big reason why most aircraft manufacturers are investigating ways to integrate electric power systems, even if not initially serving as a powerplant. There will also be many hurdles in certifying battery-powered VTOL vehicles carrying human cargo, but this is an issue dwarfed by a mountain of regulations needed for UAM safety and airspace usage.
“Our initial vehicle will be completely autonomous, but certification-wise and customer-acceptance-wise, as well as entering into the market [via certification], we do believe that we will need a piloted version, so that those initial flights can help the new customer base feel a lot more comfortable,” says Drennan. “[Team Nexus] is founded in people who know what aviation is, know how to certify vehicles, and know how to produce those vehicles or components in great numbers – with the qualities that mean you get what you designed on the backend of the factory line. If you integrate those [principles] together, you get a safe, high-volume vehicle.”
Drennan continues to explain the challenge of UAM customer acceptance presents a range of hurdles for the Nexus team. “We are challenging our engineers to make a comfortable and familiar interior despite maybe what some would say is a short ride in Urban Air Mobility,” he says.
As a hybrid-electric vehicle, Nexus is targeting a range of 150 miles with a cruise speed of 150 miles per hour. “We would like to be prepared for having people experience comfort as if they were in their automobile or perhaps in a higher-end airline-ticket scenario. That is a challenge. It is called weight. It is called drag. But there are indications that your customer’s desire to feel comfortable is more important.”
The operator’s view
Helijet International Inc. disrupted the aviation world on November 27, 1986, when it launched Canada’s first scheduled helicopter service between Vancouver and Victoria. It was one of the planet’s first pure plays in an air-taxi sector now dubbed as Urban Air Mobility, with the pending arrival of hybrid-electric or all-electric vertical landing and take-off vehicles .
One of Helijet’s founders, current president and CEO Danny Sitnam, recalls speaking with his partners around 1985 because he felt helicopter technology seemed ready to begin scheduled air-taxi services, with the ability to fly at night and, arguably, handle more inclement weather than a VFR seaplane service. Car-carrying ferries were still slow between the Lower Mainland of Greater Vancouver and Victoria on Vancouver Island, even as commerce between the two areas grew, driven in large part by the island holding the provincial legislature.
From its beginnings, with a leased Bell 412 helicopter, making the 32-minute flight from Lower Mainland to Vancouver Island about eight times a day, Helijet today is regarded as the world’s largest scheduled helicopter airline having carried more than 2.5 million passengers. The publicly traded company now holds operations in Richmond, Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii, in addition to its Pacific Heliport Services subsidiary, which is Canada’s largest operator of publicly and privately designated heliports.
“We kept telling ourselves only fear and ignorance is holding us back,” says Sitnam, during the The Vertical Flight Society’s eVTOL panel discussion. “You have to capture the situation seven months into it: We are broke. We are bleeding like stuck pigs. We are overdraft at the bank.”
Sitnam describes a sobering board meeting to address the company’s early-day financial loses, as the directors presenting two alternatives: Throw in the towel or immediately increase fares by 100 per cent. “We decided to put the fares up the next day and we moved on… nobody flinched,” says Sitnam. “Today we operate over 300 weekly urban flights between the two cities, as well as Nanaimo which is another city on the island. We have an impeccable safety record and a very high dispatch reliability. We run at 99 per cent plus most of the time. We are operating numerous types of aircraft and are looking towards the future of new aircraft and certainly eVTOL, tiltrotors and so forth.”
Sitnam continues to explain that winning the hearts and minds of air travellers is a slow process that requires a lot of patience and building of credibility, especially when operating in an urban environment.
“They do not need another test-flight experience. All they really want is safe, reliable, affordable, seamless air travel,” he says. “So, when a newer technology or a disruptor – namely eVTOL – arrives, it is almost like starting over for us, 33 years ago. We expect eVTOL to advance toward commercially viable applications for on-demand or scheduled air services… and a few things have to happen from our side.”
Emphasizing these are just a few of the things that need to happen from an operator’s perspective, Sitnam first points to the need for access to “patient capital.” He also stresses employees need to be assured that the vision of an eVTOL service is clear; and that systems manufacturers must wring-out every risk in their programs and products during these early days of development, which he also ties to developing the highest levels of service and safety standards.
“If a company like Helijet is to provide VTOL service to its customers, heliports – vertiports – must be designed with ease of access,” says Sitnam.
He then describes the footprint of Pacific Heliport Services, which manages and operates three large, certified waterfront heliports, including a unique floating helipad on Vancouver’s waterfront that can house up to five helicopters in addition to offering fuel services. Sitnam explains any eVTOL-driven heliports (or vertiports as the Urban Air Mobility crowd prefers) must be in “non-exclusive proximity” to business centres and residential communities.
“Each carrier like ourselves must work with city [planners] and communities to gain the understanding, trust and respect needed for new eVTOL landing sites, so they can be designed to stick around for the long haul like airports,” says Sitnam, noting that non-travellers living underneath all of the proposed air-taxi traffic must also be satisfied.
Sitnam then begins to describe Helijet’s current perspective of eVTOL potential, reiterating the existing services provided by Helijet. The company, which holds licenses to operate cross border, is also currently looking at introducing a nonstop service between Vancouver and Seattle.
“Today, for us, it is difficult if not impossible to fly the last few miles to our traveller’s most-important destination, which is their home or the suburbia office – and that is the challenge,” he says.
Customers have spoken with Sitnam directly about the difficulty in travelling to and from existing heliports, often located in large downtown areas or at airports. “We have this [potential] vision at Helijet: Deplane helicopter, transfer onto an eVTOL, and get into your suburbia areas in very real, effortless time.
“These are all small pockets of populations between 3,000 and 20,000 people,” continues Sitnam. “All of them take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half to get from the heliport to their final destination, on average. If we can cut that down, I believe eVTOL can give us a 10-minute leg and probably save another hour or so off their day.”
Sitnam estimates Helijet is already saving, for example, four hours of travel time between Victoria and Vancouver for most travellers. The ability to cut out another hour and a half as it relates to heliport travel would present a powerful incentive for customers.
“In many parts of the world, communities are shattered due to war and famine, mother nature’s wrath…,” says Sitnam. “I would encourage designers, OEMs, suppliers and scientists to give a little bit of their time and resources into these communities where eVTOL can play a big part.”