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I’m Not Bullish (Yet) on Urban Air Vehicles

I love the concept of Urban Mobility. 

For aerospace and aviation, I think the Urban Air Vehicle (UAA) is the next “Killer App” for the industry – more important than supersonic or hypersonic airliners.

Perhaps it’s the conservative skeptic in me, however, but I think it’s a ways off – 30 or 40 years, perhaps.

Yes, the technology is being rapidly developed, but a whole lot more needs to be considered.

Economically Feasible?

Twenty years ago, the Very Light Jet (VLJ) was the rage and prototypes popped up everywhere. 

Remember the Eclipse Jet? Vern Rayburn promised to deliver thousands of them for an out the door price of $1M per copy.  But all the educated consumer needed to do was a back of the envelope calculation to see that the airplane would cost more than double that, which it did.

Then came the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) whose manufacturers, including Cessna, promised low-tech, low performance aircraft for $150K, but couldn’t come close to profitably meeting their targets. Even the in-production ICON A5 is now priced at nearly $400K, about $250K more than originally promised. 

In the General Aviation category new Cessna 172’s and Cirrus SR-22’s, with neither spectacular nor overly advanced technology cost well over $500,000.  They are simply unaffordable to most of the population.

Leonardo has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into the AW609, with no commercial success. 

Indeed!  The technology exists to create Urban Air Vehicles but the cost to develop, certify and manufacture an Urban Air Vehicle should not be underestimated.  

For the concept to be successful it must be affordable to everyone, not just the top 1%.

Pilot vs. Unpiloted and Other Considerations

I got a call from one of the many companies developing a pilotless Urban Air Vehicle which they want to bring to market.  Hmmm…   Will that concept gain traction any time soon? 

Think about it…

Boeing has gotten CRUSHED with regards to the 737MAX because of faulty control systems.   

If the systems didn’t work well with two qualified pilots managing them, then what makes people think it will get any better when the pilots are removed?

We are now at a juncture in aviation.  Are pilots required, or are they not?

According to the “Guardian”, there are two military drone crashes EVERY MONTH with more than 250 of them in the past decade.  About 2/3rds of those occurred in mid-flight.

Looking at those numbers and using the military experience as a litmus test, how will the FAA need to approve a standard for unpiloted air-taxis? 

More importantly, how long will it take for municipalities to adopt that standard and accept the fact that pilotless drones, carrying a bevy of human cargo, will be flying over their cities with little to no threat to the people down below?

As every real estate developer working with NIMBY’s, city, state or federal bureaucrats already knows, it may take a while!

Oh, and there are other considerations too.  Like, insurance!

How will insurance carriers evaluate the risk of unpiloted air vehicles, and insure against it?  What kind of infrastructure must be developed?

Finally, as these vehicles will rely on advanced networks, we should probably mention cyber security, too. 

Generational Considerations

Look around the room.  How many of your buddies NOW will get onto an unpiloted air vehicle and fly from Orange County to Downtown LA? 

Would your kids do it?  Perhaps.  But I’ll bet 50% would say “no way, Jose!”

Grandkids?  They’re more comfortable with technology.  We’re getting warmer.

Great grandchildren?  Warmer still.

I think it will, realistically, take two or three more generations to create a market that will profitably sustain an unmanned air taxi concept.  Anything developed in the next 30 or 40 years will require a pilot component.

Other Options

Urban Mobility is a goal we should strive for. But the challenges in developing Urban Air Vehicles are real.

In the meantime, companies like Blade, Associated Air Group and Heli-Flite are active in the NYC metro area and are providing helicopter solutions that take passengers from downtown to the airports, and beyond, for not much more than the cost of a taxi.

The owners of the Vertiport Chicago have invested significantly into urban mobility by creating a platform that supports helicopters flying into the city.

Robinson Helicopters offers a product that costs less than $400,000 and can be flown for less than $200 per hour.  Can we create an infrastructure that supports Robinson operators, working under FAA Part 135 regulations, to allow them to operate, profitably, in congested cities?

Other companies, including Uber, are working to “democratize” private aviation and make it more affordable for the masses. 

It’s Coming

Despite all the requirements needed to build it out, I’m convinced that Urban Air Vehicles and Urban Mobility is coming to the world.  However, it will be an evolutionary – versus revolutionary – process and it will take both time and a lot of money.

So, hold on for a fun ride. 

Craig Picken is a retained executive recruiter focusing on senior leaders within the Aviation and Aerospace industries