Vertical Flight Society Forum 75's panel on safety in unmanned air mobility. (Nick Zazulia/AVI)
Urban air mobility won't be widely accepted as part of the public's everyday life — something industry is counting on — unless a sterling safety record is a given. Two crashes grounded Boeing's fastest-selling jet indefinitely, and planes have been with us for the better part of a century.
"There's a large difference between public expectations for ground transportation, which is what we’re trying to relieve through urban air mobility (UAM) and [for] safe aircraft," said Ife Ogunleye, FAA manager of rotorcraft policy and regulations, at the Vertical Flight Society's Forum 75.
That potential relief of overcrowded roads in urban areas is why companies such as Uber, Boeing, Airbus and Lockheed Martin are willing to invest millions in an uncertain industry: If they succeed, the market will be massive.
The agency spends a lot of time trying to think of ways to incentivize industry to equip with safety-enhancing features beyond putting in place more stringent minimum standards, according to Ogunleye.
"I think public awareness would play a huge role," he said.
Making the pitch that brings that awareness to the public is incumbent upon industry, according to Brandon Keene, CTO of Blade, a logistics company that coordinates urban air mobility among charter helicopter providers in New York and select other locations.
Keene said companies can get credit from today's safety-conscious public if they stress in their marketing "that new technology means more safety."
Blade has been trying to accomplish Uber's mission of driving down the price for short-hop flights for a while, and the company is interested in staying involved as manufacturers look to bring electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) or unmanned vehicles to the market.
"When eVTOL arrives, it's going to have a lengthy cohabitation phase with rotorcraft," Keene said.
That cohabitation brings additional challenges, though — and that might dictate some design for the new eVTOL vehicles.
"Where cohabitation starts putting in requirements is space constraints," said Vertical Lift Drive Systems engineer Patrick Darmstadt.
For example, needing to account for fuel reserves when planning out charging infrastructure might impact design decisions which have "decades of repercussions for vehicle and infrastructure," Darmstadt said. “Cohabitation is not something that impedes the design process, but it is definitely something that leads the design process."
It is difficult to determine what the cohabitation will look like. Companies such as Sikorsky and Blade say they want the vehicles to complement each other and the right aircraft for the mission to be chosen.
But Sean Redfern, director of business development for New York-based helicopter operator Associated Aircraft Group, said he wasn't sure. AAG is a Sikorsky subsidiary that flies S-76s, but Redfern sees a lot of obstacles to adding any of the new eVTOLs to his stable.
"It's going be up to Lockheed's risk management people whether they let me run them side by side or stand up a different company. But we’re very slow adopters of things [in the helicopter industry]," Redfern said. "You're going to have to train maintenance staff [separately]... you're serving a different clientele."
A Sikorsky S-76 flying over New York. (Sikorsky)
An S-76 has a 4-to-1 ratio of maintenance time to flight time, Redfern said, while the eVTOL aircraft plan to cut down on operating expenses by maximizing flight time. The eVTOLs make money on scale, while high-priced S-76 operations are for a wealthy, niche market.
"An S-76 is just not for the masses," Redfern said.
Having two very different vehicles on the same helipad also means more user training. Keene said that's a big part of Blade's job when it comes to public acceptance and safety.
"We're largely a passenger-logistics company, putting all of these first-time flyers in front of these moving machines that they don’t necessarily know how to interact with," he said. "So our staff is very well trained to make sure [they] don’t walk behind the tail rotor; if they're taking selfies, don’t walk backward carelessly."
That passenger management and training extends into flight, too — one reason that having a pilot might be valuable, even if the industry may be technologically able to go directly to unmanned operation. Particularly since Keene acknowledges that a good number of Blade's passengers have been drinking, making sure they are behaving safely and appropriately is important. He mentioned one passenger who reached forward to put a cowboys hat on the pilot, necessitating that the pilot immediately land and remove the offending passenger.
"We like to fly aircraft where there are partitions between passengers and pilots," Keene said, comparing them to a taxi. "We would love to see the design evolution consider this as a primary concern. There's a whole suite of controls in front of them… We’d love for future designs, if somebody reaches over, [for it] to ignore that."
Exposing people to a new technology involves a learning curve, but Boeing's Darmstadt believes it is a problem that can be dealt with.
"We have millions of people flying on commercial aircraft every day who are still not familiar with the term FOD [foreign object damage], so I think putting in processes to prevent passenger-induced problems is not insurmountable," he said. It will also lessen as people get used to air taxis.
The industry has a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. It's hard to get the industry progressing and move regulation forward without public acceptance, but the public won't accept something until it has seen it work — which it can't until regulation allows it, which relies on data and flight-testing.
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The niche helicopter industry is valuable to UAM as a test-bed, but it's also an obstacle in some ways — it gives it a bad reputation.
“People just don’t want to hear them, they don’t want to see them," Redfern said. "I have no idea how you get people back on the side of helicopters… You want to see how much people hate helicopters? Go to a town council meeting in East Hampton—they want to lynch you.”
While most of the industry considers it important to lower noise to more palatable levels, Keene believes the acceptance will take care of itself if the industry provides a convenience that the price point makes available to the general public.
"Making it more a part of everyday life will help," he said. "Everyone tolerates the constant honking of taxis because they get them places."
For the tolerance to continue to stay linked to usefulness, air taxis will have to stay safe, though. Safety and public acceptance are inextricably tied, which puts the FAA in a tough spot looking at a new type of vehicle.
"We as regulators have to set some level," Ogunleye said. "If we overshoot that public expectation, we run the risk of stifling this innovation. And if we undershoot it, we have to go before Congress and explain why."