Moving around metropolitan areas is getting difficult. Every year, drivers spend from 50 to 100 hours in jams in big cities. For the US economy, such delays result in an annual loss of $166 billion and 3.3 billion gallons of fuel.
Economic and environmental problems are exacerbated by rapid population growth and urban sprawl. Thus, there is no room for the construction of new infrastructure. To solve transport problems, people are beginning to pay attention to the capabilities of urban air mobility (UAM).
Let’s take a look at how flying cars, UAVs, and drones will change our lives.
Urban mobility challenges
In 2015, there were 1.3 billion cars. Bernstein Research Center states that by 2040 their number will increase to 2 billion. The construction of new roads and bypasses doesn’t solve the problem of the growing traffic, especially in metropolitan areas.
Before the pandemic, the average driver spent about 100 hours a year waiting in traffic jams. INRIX Inc. calculated that congestions cost each driver $1,377 a year.
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The outbreak of COVID-19 alleviated the burden on urban mobility. Global Traffic Scorecard considered that social distancing and quarantine restrictions have had a positive impact on traffic. Drivers have covered fewer miles, there have been fewer accidents on the roads, and average traffic jam times have been reduced by 20–100 hours.
As a result, drivers saved $980 (the USA), £613 (the UK), and €173 (Germany) per road user.
But the transport sector will restore past performance as soon as the problem with COVID-19 is resolved and people resume their previous lifestyles. Therefore, people should profit from the break provoked by the pandemic to decide how to cope with the growing traffic, traffic jams, and excessive exhaust gases. Urban mobility is one of the promising solutions.
Urban mobility overview
Back in the 1940s, Henry Ford predicted the emergence of a vehicle that would combine features of the airplane and the motorcar. Since the 1980s, specialists have been actively designing hybrid vehicles. Many manufacturers are designing electric or hybrid-electric cars with vertical take-off and landing capabilities.
1. Passenger drones
Such electric or hybrid quadcopters can convey cargo or people over distances of up to 65 miles. Aircraft of this kind are manually controlled or fly independently. To pilot them, you need a license or certificate.
2. Flying cars
These are hybrids of the car and the plane. They resemble standard cars that can be driven on the road and operated in the air. When the transport is reconfigured to an airplane mode at an airport or a specially designated area, it is ready to take off. It covers distances from 50 to 200 miles. You need to be a licensed pilot to fly this vehicle.
3. Revolutionary air vehicles
Such a vehicle combines the characteristics of a drone and a flying car. This hybrid is assumed to autonomously move in the air covering up to 200 miles. It has VTOL capabilities. Thus, it can take off and land anywhere and doesn’t require a specially equipped vertiport.
Many drones, UAVs, and flying cars have already been designed, prototyped, and tested. It is difficult to say when people will actively use UAVs and how their appearance will affect traffic. Deloitte expects urban mobility to become a reality no earlier than 2025.
The benefits of urban mobility
Experts believe that flying transport will save cities from congestion and improve communication with the countryside. The air in megapolises will become cleaner, and the number of fatal accidents will decrease.
An air route requires less investment because there is no need to pave roads or lay railways. UAM will solve the issue of parking shortages as vertiports will be located on the roofs of houses.
UAVs will not only unload highways but also provide greater opportunities to the service industries:
Taxi and door-to-door delivery services
There are no traffic jams in the air, so drones and UAVs can deliver orders or transport people faster than surface transport. Porsche Consulting has calculated that the route from Munich Airport to the city center on a VTOL aircraft is covered 19 minutes faster.
In 2020, after 7 years of working on the program, Amazon received permission for drone operations from the FAA. The retailer is testing its Prime Air delivery system. Wing’s drones transported thousands of fast food items in Logan, Australia without incident. Such “couriers” are charged wirelessly from the landing site and are operated by air traffic controllers.
Flight kits with a jetpack help rescuers to get to the victims quicker. They make it possible to get to sites that the rescue service cannot reach on conventional helicopters. Testing of Gravity Industries’ equipment proved that a man with a jetpack made his way from the rocky bottom of the Langdale Pikes valley in the Lake District in England to his destination in 90 seconds. It would have taken 25 minutes on foot to get there.
Preventive examination of equipment
UAVs and drones help to monitor the condition of buildings, industrial equipment, utilities, and transport.
A UAV surveys a construction site to determine whether it is safe to work there. It checks substations, power plants, and power lines. It also assesses the condition of gas and oil pipelines, and checks if they are cracked, corroded, or leaking toxic substances.
The UAV looks for potential transport breakdowns so that a team of technicians can carry out repairs in time. Such drones are equipped with high-precision photo and video cameras, multispectral infrared and thermal imaging cameras, or laser measurement technology. They scan an object and find defects.
Urban air mobility technologies
What makes UAVs and drones unique and useful lies “inside” them. This is software built by leading logistics software development companies and modern technologies. Urban mobility is based on the following innovations:
Propulsion technologies based on electricity or alternative energy
Unmanned vehicles, UAVs, and drones are powered by energy sources that turn propellers and fans making them provide thrust for propulsion or hovering. Electric motors, reciprocating internal combustion engines, hybrid engines, and hydrogen fuel cells are used as sources.
AI algorithms, sensors, and big data
Thanks to the combination of these technologies, UAVs, and drones can perform the following functions: collecting information, scanning the area or object, orientation in space, and other tasks. AI and big data will push the development of aircraft forward making them autonomous.
During the flight, drones rely on a stable mobile connection. 5G is a new generation network that will establish a fast connection between the drone and the ground control system. Thanks to it, UAVs will be able to fly beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) or in areas where GPS is prohibited.
3D-cartography and GIS
UAV technologies help to build accurate 3D maps of objects along the route. With their help, UAVs or drones navigate in urban space. A device chooses a place convenient for landing so as not to hit against the surrounding buildings, objects, or people.
Collision avoidance system (CAS)
An autonomous aircraft cannot function without AI and CAS. Only in this case a drone predicts the movement of another UAV and can avoid collisions.
Software for aircraft fleet management
You should trace air transport to manage the fleet more efficiently. It is necessary to control its condition, test the software, and check the route and speed.
Weather forecast apps
Heavy rain or snowfall can become an obstacle for small-sized UAVs and drones. The delivery service provider will simply lose its “courier” in case a drone is sent to fulfill the order in bad weather. Weather forecast software will help to plan delivery times based on weather conditions.
Obstacles to urban mobility
Even if companies building UAVs and drones solve the technological issues of air mobility, other problems are hindering the adoption of such aircraft:
Legislative regulation issues
To fly freely, air transport needs permission and state support:
- legislative acts that regulate the rules for drones, UAVs, and flying cars;
- changes in urban infrastructure (construction of vertiports, take-off platforms, and areas for refuelling);
- regulators should consider options for licenses and certificates for pilots (who and in what cases can fly a UAV).
Improving the traffic control system
To make citizens confide in the safety of passenger drones, a solid air traffic control system must be introduced. NASA and the FAA are testing different ways to control the movement of autonomous drones at an altitude below 400 feet. They develop approaches considering:
- the expected structure of the airspace;
- the ability of UAVs to consider the weather and avoid collisions;
- planning and changing routes and other circumstances.
Currently, the airspace management procedure is being finalized. It is expected that UAVs and drones will fly above 400 feet, but below the limit set for traditional commercial aircraft. UAVs will not be allowed to enter restricted areas reserved for commercial service airports.
Safety and psychological barriers
Drone and aircraft manufacturers will have to work hard to convince people of the safety of flying on UAVs and passenger drones. They need to convince everyone that VTOL, urban, and rural movements will not create problems for existing infrastructure. People must learn to trust unmanned air taxis the way they rely on conventional cars.
It will take decades for UAV manufacturers to certify air transport and enable licensed pilots to manage it.
Enhancing urban mobility is a global change that will take more than one year or even a decade. Unmanned technologies are just emerging but they possess significant potential for business development and the improvement of transport infrastructure and the environmental situation.
Urban mobility will help to use surface transport more reasonably. There will be fewer traffic jams, less fuel and pollution. Governments, businesses, hardware vendors and logistics software development companies will unite their forces to create mobility as a service platform.