By Nick Zazulia | March 4, 2018
It probably doesn’t make sense right now to hop in an aircraft to get from one side of a city to the other. Maybe tomorrow, it will.
According to Bell’s EVP of technology and innovation, Michael Thacker, a person “will be able to fly from Frisco in north Dallas to Arlington in south Dallas to visit their grandchild on the weekend and it will make sense financially for them to do that and not deal with the two-and-a-half hours of traffic getting through the central part of the city.”
The tomorrow in question is, more precisely, some 2,000 tomorrows from now in 2023. Thacker, said Bell’s EVP of technology and innovation during a panel at Helicopter Association International's Heli-Expo in Las Vegas Wednesday where he shared the stage with representatives of Uber, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, American Helicopter Society International and the FAA to talk about the future of electric vertical-takeoff-or-landing (eVTOL) aircraft and the part they will play in Uber’s ambitious air taxi plans.
Thacker focused on the need for the move to EVTOL to be cost-effective and brought up a needed shift in public opinion among the general public.
He said the reason Bell revealed its aircraft design at January's Consumer Electronic Show instead of an aviation event is that it's the audience that will need to embrace this technology. A focus for Bell is trying to help people understand how aviation can or will be able to be a useful, convenient part of their everyday lives.
He also discussed his expectations for avionics in EVTOL aircraft. Thacker said that a lot of existing avionics companies are “aggressively moving forward” with technology such as fly-by-wire and automation technology for cockpit functions, and that, in parallel to the OEM side of things, there is a jockeying for supremacy going on; a lot of company’s vying to “be the industry’s Tesla,” to use a metaphor that was repeatedly tossed around during the panel.
Thacker also said that a lot of attention is being given to the technology outside of the aviation industry, from tech startups to the automotive industry, to see what underlying pieces are present that could be adapted or — with significant work — certified to help EVTOL along the path from the federated cockpit to fully autonomous.
Uber has put a lot of time and money into the 2023 target date, and it is serious about it.
Director of Aviation Mark Moore said that Uber, which didn’t exist more than eight years ago, now has 65 million users monthly for its automobile ridesharing service. He spent time hyping up the possibilities of this new industry outgrowth — or marriage of industries — but was also frank about what will be required for it to work.
He said the infrastructure for such flight service exists in Dallas, where Uber has deals in place for “skyports," for this to happen and work right now on a small scale, but it isn’t sustainable. For this format to be successful, it needs to make sense from all angles, and that means scaling up quickly.
When Uber Elevate hits a city with about 50 aircraft, Uber wants there to be 300 to 500 within a few years, and more than 1,000 within a few more. Moore said the economics just don’t work out without that scaling.
The scale is also important from a manufacturing standpoint, where Moore described bridging the safe, high-quality aerospace industry with the efficient, low-cost automotive industry. As with the offerings in a city, things would start with a lower volume, but the goal is to get to a manufacturing scale that mimics the automotive world that drives down costs, which he said is necessary for the business model to make sense for both Uber and for customers.
Perhaps most notable, Moore was bullish on quality. He said that “these electric VTOLS need to be way, way better than helicopters, across every single evaluation metric. Whether that’s safety, efficiency, noise, speed, you name it, we’re talking about being multiple times better than what helicopters can do today.”
He elaborated on the safety to highlight redundancies at every stage, saying that no individual failure in one of these aircraft will render it inoperable. That need to focus on safety is also why the company is ferrying people only between designated skyports where the locations and routes are known rather than trying to people up in their back yards.
Moore said that, right now, Uber is interested in soliciting designs and technology from all entrants into the market. Essentially, with this kind of risk, it’s hard to say what will work out and what won’t, so locking in with just one partner is dangerous, while keeping it more open fosters more innovation. Moore said that it will probably make sense for Uber to pare it down to a few close collaborators in the future, but for now it is happy to see as many companies as possible working on solutions in the space.
Greg Bowles, VP of global innovation and policy, discussed what GAMA calls “the deconstructed pilot," a breakdown of the different attributes required of a pilot. The group uses these individual attributes to evaluate, on a sliding scale, where automation has equaled or surpassed human pilots (navigation and systems management) and where it still has a way to go (communication and detect-and-avoid ability).
Using that breakdown makes it easier to look at how close the industry is to a fully autonomous cockpit and what would still be needed to make that a reality, according to Bowles.
He also said that, in contrast with helicopters, the standard with eVTOLs would not be to shut down automation in the case of a failure because the level of artificial intelligence and redundancy in the cockpit would enable its continued functionality to help rather than hinder operation, pointing to the approximate 80% of helicopter crashes that are a result of human error.
AHS was, in many ways, facilitating the discussion for the group at large. Executive Director Mike Hirschberg was also interested in setting the record straight on the proper use of some terms, quipping that eVTOLs are not electric helicopters in much the same way that “cars were not buggies with mechanical horses.”
The FAA had a pretty clear message to convey: the industry has evolved, and the agency is trying to adapt to meet new needs. Mike Romanowski, director of policy and innovation, admitted that many of the FAA’s traditional certification methods were no longer a good fit for everything and spoke of an effort to become more agile and work with industry partners, like those on stage, to make processes smoother and faster in line with companies that are changing rapidly and internationally intertwined.
When asked, Romanowski avoided taking a clear stance on his expectations vis-à-vis the feasibility of this technology being ready and certified in 2023, but did say that the FAA is working hard to ensure that it is “not the barrier” to progress and things are otherwise ready.