Visions of a new generation of electric air taxis fitting seamlessly into a connected, three-dimensional urban mobility ecosystem remain firmly on many an R&D and investment radar screen. But as Steve Nordlund, vice-president and general manager of Boeing’s NeXt urban air mobility research unit told a FIA Connect webinar on the future of mobility, the aerospace industry must match its enthusiasm for creating a new form of air transport with an absolute focus on safety.
Nordlund sees technology, societal acceptance and economics as the “three drivers” of a coming urban mobility revolution. Air taxis - and eventually longer-distance craft to cover trips shorter than the 300 miles (480km) and more suitable for narrowbody aircraft - can make the air above cities a “third dimension” of travel as part of a complete “ecosystem” connected with on-ground modes of transport.
The “key unlock” to make such an ecosystem viable will be, he says, to integrate airspace safely and economically. Reaching that stage will require partnerships between governments and companies - much, says Nordlund, like the early days of aviation which saw private companies work with government to create the air mail services that eventually enabled passenger travel, or the government-driven programmes that developed the military unmanned air vehicle technology which has led to civil applications.
But while urban air mobility vehicles represent “our opportunity to change how aviation moves people around”, all players - both established firms like Boeing and newcomers to aviation attracted by the potential of connected mobility - must underscore the commitment to safety.
“We have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to transfer the first hundred years of aviation, everything that we’ve learned… and make sure we bring forward all those lessons in safety and apply them to the next hundred years and beyond.
“And, we should challenge ourselves to make this next era of aviation safer than the first,” says Nordlund.
In practice, maintaining or improving safety performance means staying focussed on the particular requirements of aircraft. “There is a lot of work to be done to get to what I call ‘aviation grade’. One thing about our industry is we spent a lot of investment and time on making aviation-grade components in all our aircraft,” he says.
“And so, when we get to electric aircraft, or any new technology, we have to keep in mind how that technology is transformed in a way that keeps safety at the forefront.
“I do think that although we’re starting to see battery density continue to improve in a way where it gives us hope around electric flight, it’s still at relatively short ranges. And as the science continues we also have to focus on the safety aspects of it and make sure we don’t compromise on aviation-grade components that exist in these new forms of transportation.”