Urban Air Mobility (UAM) is the use of small highly automated aircraft to carry passengers or cargo at lower altitudes in urban and suburban areas which have been developed in response to traffic congestion. It usually refers to existing and emerging technologies such as traditional helicopters, vertical take-off and landing aircraft (VTOL), electrically propelled, electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft (eVTOL), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These aircraft are characterized by the use of multiple electric-powered rotors or fans for lift and propulsion, along with fly-by-wire systems to control them. Inventors have explored urban air mobility concepts since the early days of powered flight. However, advances in materials, computerized flight controls, batteries and electric motors improved innovation and designs beginning in the late 2010s. Most UAM proponents envision that the aircraft will be owned and operated by professional operators, as with taxis, rather than by private individuals.
Urban air mobility is a subset of a broader Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) concept that includes other use cases than intracity passenger transport; NASA describes Advanced Air Mobility as including small drones, electric aircraft, and automated air traffic management among other technologies to perform a wide variety of missions including cargo and logistics.
The development of the earliest predecessors of UAM aircraft began in the early 1900s with early concepts of “flying cars” such as Glenn Curtiss’s Autoplane, developed in 1917. Three years later, Henry Ford began prototyping “plane cars” as single-seat aircraft, but halted development after a fatal crash in early tests. One of the first vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft (VTOLs) was the 1924 Berliner No. 5. It recorded its best performance when it reached a height of 4.57 m (15 ft) during a one minute, thirty-five second flight. Pitcairn, Cierva, Buhl and other manufacturers developed autogyros prototypes. The Avrocar was a disk-shaped aircraft designed for military use. Initially funded by the Canadian government, the project was dropped due to costs until the U.S. Army and Air Force took over development of the Avrocar in 1958. The Avrocar encountered issues with both thrust and stability and the project was eventually canceled in 1961.
Helicopters and Air Taxi Services
Beginning in the early 1950s, air operators offered UAM air taxis services via helicopters in a handful of U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In 1964, New York Airways (NYA) and Pan American offered more than 30 flights between John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport with stops in Manhattan such as Wall Street. The average cost for a one-way fare was $4–11.
From 1964 to 1968, PanAm offered regular helicopter connections between midtown Manhattan and John F. Kennedy International Airport, allowing for passengers to connect directly to their flights from the New York City Pan American building. The service was halted in 1979 after a crash in 1977 killed four people on the roof and one on the ground below. In the 1980s, Trump Shuttle offered helicopter service between Wall Street and LaGuardia Airport, utilizing Sikorsky S-61 helicopters. The service was discontinued in the 1990s after Trump Shuttle was acquired by US Airways. In 1986, Helijet began as a helicopter airline with routes between Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia.
BLADE, launched in 2014 in New York City, providing helicopter-based air taxi services. BLADE has since launched similar services in the San Francisco Bay Area and Mumbai. In 2017 Voom, a subsidiary of aircraft maker Airbus, flew more than 15,000 passengers in São Paulo, Brazil using Airbus helicopters. The Voom UAM demonstration program operated for four years and was shut down in March 2020. In 2019, Uber began to offer Uber Copter in Lower Manhattan New York to John F. Kennedy International Airport. Some cities have encouraged the idea of inexpensive, point-to-point air travel as a way of reducing traffic congestion and moving goods.
VTOLs and eVTOLs
By the mid-2000s, some aircraft designers were incorporating technologies pioneered in small drones into new aircraft designs for passengers. These technologies included distributed propulsion (the use of multiple rotors or fans), lithium ion batteries, inexpensive accelerometers, miniaturized navigation systems and carbon-fiber construction. In 2010, Kitty Hawk Corporation, funded by Google Co-Founder Larry Page, began development of the Kitty Hawk Flyer. On October 5, 2011, Marcus Leng, Founder of Opener, piloted the first manned flight of a fixed-wing all electric VTOL aircraft. On October 21, 2011, the co-founder and primary designer of Volocopter, Thomas Senkel, flew the first manned flight of an electric multicopter, the Volocopter VC1 prototype. In 2012, Joby Aviation and NASA partnered to prototype an experimental eVTOL. In 2014, The Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology (LEAPTech) project was launched as a collaboration of NASA Langley Research Center and NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center along with Empirical Systems Aerospace (ESAero) and Joby Aviation.
Lockheed Martin debuted their optionally-piloted helicopter, the S-76B Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft (SARA) in 2019, in downtown Los Angeles. In 2018, the Wisk Cora eVTOL test flight occurred in Mountain View, CA. That same year, Opener flew the BlackFly a personal air vehicle, after nine years of development. Joby Aviation tested its tilt-rotor UAM vehicle in flight in March 2021. In June 2021, EHang completed the first pilotless test flight of the AAV EHang216 in Honshu, China. In the same month, Volocopter demonstrated its first public flight of an electric air taxi in France along with remote-controlled flight of its eVTOL, the Volocopter 2X. In July 2021, Joby completed a flight of its eVTOL that flew a 150-mile flight on a single battery charge by flying in a 14-mile circle 11 times for a total flight time of one hour and 17 minutes.
Air mobility is progressing along both manned and UAV directions. In Hamburg, the WiNDroVe project – (use of drones in a metropolitan area) was implemented from May 2017 through January 2018. In Ingolstadt, Germany the Urban Air Mobility project began in June 2018, involving Audi, Airbus, the Carisma Research Center, the Fraunhofer Application Center for Mobility, the THI University of Applied Sciences (THI in the artificial intelligence research network) and other partners. Envisioned was use of UAM in emergency services, transport of blood and organs, traffic monitoring, public safety and passenger transport.
The German, Dutch and Belgian cities Maastricht, Aachen, Hasselt, Heerlen and Liège joined the UAM Initiative of the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC). Toulouse, France, is participating in the European Urban Air Mobility Initiative. The project is coordinated by Airbus, the European institutional partner Eurocontrol and EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency).