How can Urban Air Mobility (UAM) contribute to a more flexible, reliable, affordable, sustainable, integrated and user-oriented transportation system?

More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, generating more than 80 percent of global GDP today (FEV). As populations in megacities continue to grow, cities are challenged with diseconomies such as traffic and emissions. In 2030, more than 500 million people will be affected by congestion on the roads every day (BDLI). The significant population growth, urbanization and traffic situation is pushing ground transport systems to their limits, demanding for innovative mobility options to ensure that cities remain livable. Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and the commercial use of inner-city airspace intend to provide a remedy and offers the potential to create a more flexible, reliable, affordable, sustainable, integrated and user-oriented transportation system (FEV; Springer Professional; TU Dresden). 

Today, there are more than 110 city or regional projects around the globe to provide autonomous air transport services. It is estimated that the first commercial routes will be seen in selected cities in the next three years, and that by 2035 there will already be around 23,000 air taxis in operation worldwide; other figures say as many as 160,000 commercial air taxis by 2050. Routes could become established on heavily used commuter routes, as tourist attractions, at airports as airport shuttles as well as intercity jets that can cover distances of up to 250 kilometers (Springer Professional). The advantages compared to helicopters are lower energy consumption and cheaper operation – electricity is cheaper than kerosene and more environmentally friendly. Additionally, air taxis are quiet, save money compared to helicopters and airplanes and save time for passengers compared to cars (Freudenberg FST). Urban air mobility can better link people to cities and regions, giving them more possibilities to connect. It can positively contribute to a multimodal mobility system, making sustainable city development possible (Airbus).

Raphael Olivier.

To make Urban Air Mobility and especially the operation of air taxis in congested cities successful, a flexible landing infrastructure of so-called vertiports is elementary. According to aware+ member GRAFT, vertiports are the only necessary physical infrastructure to start operating air taxis in cities in the near future (German Architects). Together with GRAFT and Arup, the partner agency GRAFT Brandlab recently won a competition to design a modular vertiport concept for the German Air Taxi Company Volocopter. Volocopter is the pioneer in developing the fully electronic autonomous vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft ( GRAFT). GRAFT’s modular flight stations, so-called VoloPorts, combine lounge, security and departure areas as well as a hydraulic landing platform (source: industrieBAU). The smooth, harmonious and curved design is intended to increase acceptance for passengers to enjoy a relaxed air taxi experience and feel safe in a familiar environment. The modular nature of the VoloPorts allows seamless integration into existing urban infrastructure. VoloPorts can be connected to operating train stations or airports, for example; unused rooftops or pontoons can also function as flight stations to make use of free air corridors (GRAFT; industrieBAU).

Nikolay Kazakov.

The new VoloPort concept takes an important step towards a new airborne form of urban mobility based on electric energy. Volocopter wants to operate several routes commercially in 2025 – and then expand the network. In addition to Volocopter, the start-up Lilium and the aircraft manufacturer Airbus are also working on flight taxis in Germany and more than 300 flight taxis are in the works worldwide (WirtschaftsWoche)

Nikolay Kazakov.

aware_ sat down with GRAFT 

aware_: What value is assigned to design in terms of user-friendliness? And how can design improve the user’s experience with UAM?

GRAFT: UAM is a user-centered concept in its core idea. It will allow individuals to travel based on their specific schedule and customer needs in a network of urban locations of interest. User-friendliness will start with the allocation of vertiports which are small airports for eVTOL eg. Volocopters including all the infrastructure needed for passenger handling, the infrastructure for electrical aircraft and the airside platform for landing and take-off. The vertiports will be designed compact and versatile so that they can be built on sites where a high number of users can have easy access. That means they will be in the urban centers, in highly densified spaces, nearby downtown hotels, monuments, stadia or close to existing infrastructure. This is the game-changer for UAM: Take-off where the people are.
At the same time user-friendliness will drive the development of the UAM technologies on many levels. Customer processes around UAM will be highly automated and optimized. The use of apps throughout the full process from ticket purchase, check-in, and the flight itself will be native to the technology.
While technology will make the main processes simple and quick, staff will find more time to really take care of the customer. Passengers will be accompanied by individual staff and can be offered additional services around the flight. Compared to the flight in a typical airliner the flight experience can be managed to be highly customized to each user.

aware_: How can UAM be inserted into the existing infrastructure without changing it completely?

GRAFT: By nature, UAM is an extension of infrastructure; be it stations for trains, subway, or buses, it adds to the value of the existing transport systems in place. eVTOL aircraft are designed to be small in scale and very light in weight compared with other aircraft. This will allow the infrastructure around these aircraft also to be light weight offering designers the opportunity to create light structures optimized in size and weight in conjunction with existing buildings.
At the same time, we consider vertiports to be highly integrated units as in the Singapore showcase. Here we have designed a unit which combines the passenger terminal and the technical infrastructure around electric flight as a complete package. Building a fully functional unit will help bringing customers and the aircraft close together. To truly connect the vertiport to existing infrastructure, accessibility must be established by placing the unit close to the stream of passengers in existing stations. The more versatile your unit can be designed, the more flexible this connection can be established.
The design language of the architecture projects was integrated into the new brand design, developed, and introduced by Volocopter’s Head of Marketing & Brand Management, Marcus Hinkel. The VoloPort is the first architectural project at Volocopter in which the new brand design manifests itself.

aware_: What are the challenges or limitations to UAM and its design? 

GRAFT: UAM will only be as good as the infrastructure around it. We have seen a similar development in the field of e-mobility with the vehicle development clearly running ahead of the infrastructure. Aircraft developers, future operators of UAM infrastructure and designers need to work closely together to achieve a versatile, functional, and user-friendly infrastructure. GRAFT offers a platform to bring those stakeholders together and develop designs that really match the great potential which we see in UAM.
Indeed, as with all things truly new, there are challenges. Cities need to be willing to accommodate this type of transport. We understand UAM as a means of transport that will be open and inclusive to many customers. As exciting as it seems to have aircraft with low noise and low impact flying above cities, we need to work on integrating it into the local communities. UAM must offer additional elements which generate further synergies for residents, neighboring businesses, and services. Sustainability and long-lasting improvement on community level will be achieved only by integration of this new type of infrastructure into the urban fabric on many levels beyond the mere technical aspects.
While certification for commercial flight for the aircraft may be available in the coming years, the infrastructure must be thoroughly checked and approved by the local authorities. As architects we are aware of the time and discussion it takes to get a building permit. We see this discussion very positive because it reflects the integration of municipality and the public. We need to allow for sufficient time for this dialogue to define the right solution which truly connects each site with UAM.
Further, the infrastructure must be designed to be ready for the future with technological developments we cannot fully anticipate today. Again, it is a question of sustainability to design a piece of infrastructure which is flexible enough to accommodate such developments. New aircraft may be developed in the coming years at an astonishing pace. The technical infrastructure will need to develop along with it in a similar pace. We will see new technology in ground movement, battery and charging processes and automated flight systems. The design of vertiports of today will be challenged by the technologies of tomorrow.

aware_: How can UAM interact with other modes of transport, such as public transport?

GRAFT: UAM will act as a missing link between the conventional modes of transport by placing it at the intersections of these systems and build up new connections. A very clean and simple concept is to connect a downtown train station with an airport at the fringes of the city. Both systems will clearly profit from a quick and user-friendly connection. At the same time, we also see interaction with individual transport, e.g., car sharing stations, charging stations or bicycle storages. Intermodality will be a key success factor for UAM.
From a design perspective UAM infrastructure must blend into an existing infrastructure network. For example, it will need to integrate into the systems that are guiding passengers, be it signs and signals, be it visibility in the urban context. Easy access will not only help passengers to experience a perfect connection but will also attract visitors and those interested in this new mode of transport. Maybe a customer will first only watch and check the system out before booking a flight. The more open, inviting, and transparent the infrastructure and the processes around it are designed the more attractive it will be for future customers.
Convenience and service in time will also play a role here. This will be achieved by offering a scale up of capacity. Flights must be easily available within short lead times of booking so that the flight schedule can be generated highly adaptive to the actual needs of customers. This means a UAM provider must be able to offer many flights in peak hours while operating efficiently in off-hours. Here again the infrastructure and the systems around it must be able to allow for many take-offs and landings at particular times. At the same time, it must be ready to grow to meet an increase of demand in the future.

aware_: Are there best practices of UAM yet?

GRAFT: There are no best practices to our knowledge. There is a lot of development on behalf of the aircraft industry, and we certainly see samples published. From our point of view there is a lot of visions that circulate publicly but only few of those offer a complete approach of planning that covers the whole package from urban design to thorough technical planning and building.
We think that there should be more discussion around the topic. There is an enormous amount of money that is going into the development of the aircraft. We see valuations of companies such as Lillium and Jobi in the range of billions while the aspect of infrastructure is highly marginalized. The future potential of the UAM technology will highly depend on the integration of the infrastructure into our cities. Without examples, without sound planning in this realm we will not see a lot of discussion and learning amongst planners, stakeholders, and the public. We see an urgent need to have this discussion to build awareness, to create acceptance and to have people willing to enjoy this new type of transport.
GRAFT has proposed a visionary project for a Mobility Innovation Convention Center by re-using the ICC Berlin. This building with its futuristic architecture from the 1970ies will be a perfect showcase for new types of mobility. It would certainly be the perfect test bed for UAM, and the infrastructure required for it while providing the ground for exchange in this field of development in its vast convention venue for the public and for specialists in the field.

aware_: When can we see (and use) the first autonomous air taxis transporting people in cities?

GRAFT: Air taxis will be available sooner than we think with some products in the process of certification for commercial flight. Volocopter for example claims that they are currently working with EASA on certification for commercial launch planned in the next two to three years (source: Volocopter). We will see how quickly operators will develop the infrastructure and the business around it so that the air taxis will truly be available as a means of transport for city dwellers.

aware_: What can air taxis do for the mobility of tomorrow?

GRAFT: Air taxis will offer a new means of transport in the realm of UAM based on its ability to tap into the dense urban centers. It will be faster and more convenient by cutting out the traffic jam while offering a great user experience. A big step will be automated flight which will increase efficiency and availability. Air taxis will become a part of our everyday life and will do so at a very individual scale.
The current technology may offer flights at a distance typical to urban centers. As in e-mobility the distances and the size of the aircraft will increase over time. In the longer term, electrical air mobility will be able to cover connections at a regional scale where conventional aircraft are too expensive. This will add flight offerings e.g., from central airports to other cities.
We will also need to understand UAM as a network that connects to multiple ports in one city with different capacity needs. This network will overlay the existing transport network and connect locations that would hardly connect by conventional means. We may want to connect not only between the center and the airport. We may also want to go to a suburban shopping mall or places of interest in the vicinity of a city such as a festival or a tourist site.
A major upside of flying with electrical power is the opportunity to fly without CO2 emissions. It is the only technology that will be available in short term that offers to integrate renewable energy sources for flying. Charging electric aircraft with power gleaned from wind, the sun or from the tides will close the loop and truly minimize the impact of flying. Just imagine a flight without fumes of fuel and exhaust heat and smoke! It will be a smarter mode of transport with less noise, less emission, less impact.


 by Marie Klimczak