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The city as an airport: TfL’s Head of Foresight mulls urban air mobility

Iain Macbeth, Head of Foresight, Transport for London (TfL), provides insight into how cities can plan for the rise of urban air mobility.


You might not expect to see a city planner at an airshow but Iain Macbeth, Head of Foresight, Transport for London’s (TfL) participation in a panel on urban air transport at Farnborough Airshow last month highlighted how these two worlds are increasingly merging as urban air taxis or ‘flying cars’, alongside delivery drones, gear up to try and help solve cities’ mobility challenges.

The idea of air taxis hovering above our cities and being hailed like an Uber today still seems pretty sci-fi but the scale of the activity in the market suggests those in the industry don’t think the obstacles are insurmountable, and many manufacturers are involved in work to get the supporting infrastructure in place to smooth the way.


The panellists alongside Macbeth – Guillaume Thibault, Partner, Oliver Wyman; Michael Cervenka, Head of Future Technologies Group, Rolls-Royce; and Eduardo Dominguez Puerta, Head of Urban Air Mobility, Airbus – highlighted the significant challenges, including infrastructure, airspace management, regulation, public acceptance and more. However, they also noted the size of the opportunity – for cities and aerospace companies, with Airbus’ Puerta saying: “We believe that urban air mobility is going to play a key role in the future in urbanism and city planning.”


Rolls-Royce’s Cervenka said urban air mobility advances could take us beyond smart cities and contribute to ‘smart regions’, boosting their power and the overall economic capability of the country.


Airbus, Embraer, Bell Helicopter and many others are all working on urban mobility aircraft. At Farnborough Airshow (the world’s second largest airshow) this year alone, a number of announcements were made, including Rolls-Royce revealing an electric propulsion system for urban aircraft, Aston Martin’s announcement of its vision for a luxury flying autonomous hybrid-electric vehicle, and Faradair targeting the market with an all-electric 6-10 passenger aircraft with a two-hour range.


The whole city as an airport


Providing the city perspective, Macbeth said urban air mobility is starting to “blur lines” between what’s surface transport and what’s in the aviation sector.


He commented: “Society is changing quite rapidly, and the power of mayors to dictate what happens in their area shouldn’t be underestimated. We work very closely with the CAA (the Civil Aviation Authority) and EASA (the European Aviation Safety Agency) and so on, but if there’s a proliferation of things in the air, it is inconceivable that the Mayor of London wouldn’t have a say.”


He added: “We are a planning authority. Aviation, at the moment, is constrained to airfields and airports, but urban air mobility – in particular, if you’re talking about flying taxis – they could land anywhere, and all of a sudden all of London becomes an airport. That’s a very different scenario. The planning regulations will need to reflect that going forward.”


Disruption is not new


Despite the many unknowns and the additional complexity this could bring to a planning authority’s work, Macbeth didn’t sound too daunted by the task.


He noted: “We’re very used to that disruption of established models,” citing the example the fast growth of dockless bikes and electric scooters.


“It’s very, very different people, different business models and mindsets. Even though we’re not necessarily in aviation per se; we’re seeing these disruptors on a daily basis,” he said.


Other applicable and emerging technologies include drones and autonomous vehicles.


Listening exercise


Macbeth will be keeping a careful eye (and ear) on the potential impact of more aircraft over city skies.


“We already use UAVs for inspection purposes and things like that,” he noted. “But what does 10, 20, 30, 40, 50,000 UAVs in the skies over London look like? What is the security, the privacy, the noise, the safety considerations?”


Macbeth said cities will need to think clearly about ‘what good looks like’ and focus on the most beneficial use cases: “Do we really want pizza deliveries by air?”


Nesta (working with cities including London through the Flying High programme) recently published a report on integrating drones into cities – it identifies some of the key benefits drones can offer, particularly around critical services; highlights the need for citizen education and discussion around UAV uses; and outlines the technical and regulatory challenges to overcome before drone usage can scale.

Some of this work will be useful for evaluating the impact of and management of urban air transport in the future.

Last mile

Another increasing concern for cities is ensuring that new tech isn’t counter-productive to overall aims.

Recent research suggested, for example, that ride-sharing services could be making city traffic worse and encouraging citizens away from walking or using public transport.

London’s Transport Strategy is focused on healthy streets. Whatever new tech comes on the scene, ultimately: “We’d rather you walk or cycle that last mile,” Macbeth said.

The next best thing is mass public transport. TfL is investing billions in the Crossrail project and the Elizabeth line, a new 41-station railway scheduled to open in December.

“We’ll have trains 200 metres long, every two minutes, delivering 1,500 passengers,” Macbeth said. “We’d need an awful lot of flying taxis and mobility solutions to deliver that number of people in an intense urban environment urban air mobility has got to find its place in this ecosystem.”

Rolls-Royce’s Cervenka hinted at future larger scale opportunities, commenting: “Part of the reason we’re getting into this is it gives us a chance to create some excitement and buzz, and recruit some really brilliant people, but it also acts as a stepping stone for some bigger concepts that actually, I think, can become a more mass transport system. These are inherently scalable.”

Puerta also made the point that thinking upwards could help cities manage infrastructure costs: “Airlines have traditionally had a positive impact on the GDP of cities and [were often subsidised] because they were contributing to increased value for a society, and the society had to support the development of that industry. At a moment in time, that reached a critical mass where those subsidies were no longer needed.

“I think, possibly, that is also going be a development in this space, where cities are going to invest and be entrepreneurial as well.”

He added: “A kilometre of air is probably much cheaper than a kilometre of the Tube. And the flexibility that you might get with it is also interesting.”

Connecting everything up

Cities and companies are likely to learn a lot about urban air mobility from the roll-out of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

TfL has worked closely with the Department for Transport for a number of years on developing guidelines for testing autonomous vehicles.

“They will change over time, because we don’t know what the end state will be, so they have to be a constantly evolving scenario,” Macbeth said. Integrating new forms of transport and connectivity will be part of that.

CAVs will communicate via 5G. “I’ve no idea if that’s compatible with aviation communication standards, for instance. Probably not. That conversation hasn’t really taken place,” Macbeth said.

He added: “There’s multiple levels of things that will have to be discussed over time. We, as a local authority, are not in a position ourselves to do that but we can bring people together to start those discussions now.”

Puerta agreed that: “Policy makers, industrial partners and regulators will need to work together.” He warned that otherwise, it will be difficult to make urban air mobility a reality.

One example he pointed to is the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Initiative, part of the European Innovation Partnership in Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC). Supported by the European Commission, this work unites cities, citizens, industries, SMEs, investors, researchers and other smart city stakeholders. Geneva, Hamburg, Ingolstadt, Ghent, Plovdiv and Brussels have all signed up since March. Demonstration projects are planned for next year.

A billion to one chance

While it’s clear many of these issues will require intense collaboration and solutions will evolve over time, one thing that’s non-negotiable across the board is safety.

Macbeth said like traditional aviation, urban air mobility will need 109 safety

(likely to result in the loss of less than one life per billion hours of operation), agreeing with Puerta, who said: “If, for whatever reason, there is any type of fatality in this type of market, the market will not exist, and it will be locked down."

The possibilities are intriguing but across the conference the jury was out on whether we’ll be commuting across the skies in this lifetime. Then again, if any industry knows how to make the seemingly impossible a reality, it’s aviation.

Watch this (air) space.


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