Look for Urban Air Mobility Vehicles within 5-10 Years, Expert Says

Dr. Pat Anderson, professor of Aerospace Engineering and director of the Eagle Flight Research Center, shared his insights on urban air mobility during an Embry-Riddle Speaker Series event celebrating National Engineers Week 2019. (Photo: Embry-Riddle/David Massey)

Within the next 5-10 years, urban air mobility vehicles will “transform what airplanes look like,” and today’s engineering students are well-positioned to help shape the future of transportation, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Dr. Richard “Pat” Anderson said Feb. 20.

“It’s your turn,” Anderson told students. “You’re about to change the world. Airplanes are not going to look like they’ve looked for the past 115 years.” 

From the Spirit of St. Louis to Avatar, Anderson, professor of Aerospace Engineering and director of the Eagle Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle, ushered listeners into the Age of Urban Air Mobility. He offered remarks at an Embry-Riddle Speaker Series event celebrating National Engineers Week. 

Urban air mobility, or UAM, “is the idea that you can have a practical flying machine that can replace the mission of a car or van in a city environment,” Anderson explained. He cautioned, however, that no one should imagine an owner-operated flying car that can be wheeled in and out of a garage. 

More than 140 companies are investing in UAM, including aviation market leaders Boeing and Airbus, and the field keeps growing, he said. He likened the influx of capital investment in UAM to the commercial space race. 

Key Technical Challenges 

As with the evolution of cars, Anderson sees hybrid-electric propulsion systems as the most promising solution for UAMs in the near term. Such vehicles will likely require electric distributed propulsion systems in order to achieve safety and noise-reduction advantages compared with helicopters that would be needed to operate in a city environment, Anderson said. 

To fly as quietly as a car or truck and more safely than a helicopter, fully electric UAMs face key technological hurdles, he noted. Weight is a critical design issue for any aircraft, and batteries are heavy. Hybrid electric systems seek to solve this problem using existing technology. Keeping UAMs stable is another challenge, although artificial intelligence or machine learning can help vehicles “learn to fly like a child” learns to walk, so that they gradually move more smoothly, he added. 

Some cities such as Dallas/Fort Worth are already embracing the idea of “sky taxis” and investing in infrastructure to support such vehicles, he noted. Heliports atop tall buildings will need to be wired to provide megawatts of electricity to power UAMs. While he predicts in-city UAMs within the decade, he noted that city-to-city travel in such vehicles remains a more distant goal. 

Before urban air mobility becomes a passenger-focused business, the technology will probably first be used for cargo delivery. Passengers will need to become comfortable with autonomous transportation, and regulations will need to become more flexible and less prescriptive. 

Embry-Riddle’s Eagle Flight Research Center, established in 1998, continues to guide aviation technology into the future. EFRC research spans four key areas, encompassing propulsion; unmanned autonomous vehicles; manned flight control; and certification. The center’s work in these areas currently includes some two-dozen projects related to electric and hybrid-electric flights, novel UAVs, unleaded aviation fuels and much more. 

The Feb. 20 event was co-sponsored by the Embry-Riddle Honors Program and the College of Engineering

Dr. Maj Mirmirani, dean of the College of Engineering, said: “It is befitting for the 2019 National Engineers Week keynote address at Embry-Riddle to focus on Urban Air Mobility. This technology promises to revolutionize urban transportation, and Embry-Riddle is the leading university in advancing it.” 

Anderson was the advisor for the world’s first piston-gas electric-hybrid aircraft, the Eco Eagle, designed by Embry-Riddle students and flown in NASA’s Green Flight Challenge, which is now housed at the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach. He was named Florida University Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation. He holds advanced degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Aerospace Engineering. He also has Airline Transport Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor ratings for land and sea aircraft, instrument and multi-engine aircraft, gliders and helicopters, and he has an Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic rating, with inspection authorization. 

— Kim Sheeter and Ginger Pinholster

Posted In: Aviation | Engineering