Autonomous Air Mobility May Serve Miami In Five Years

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Aviation experts gathered in Brickell recently to discuss the future of urban air mobility in Miami, with the more optimistic panelists predicting autonomous aircrafts could soar through the skies within five years.

The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce annual members meeting featured a presentation on smart cities and advance air mobility (AAM), an emerging field of transportation that uses electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft to transport passengers. The technology offers a more sustainable and efficient alternative to traditional air travel and could serve as a solution to traffic congestion in urban areas like Miami.

The discussion consisted of a back and forth between two groups, a so-called neutral panel and an industry panel. While the neutral side said there is a way to go from a regulatory standpoint, the industry partners were hopeful eVTOLs will receive certification by 2025 or 2026.

The neutral panelists included Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Oliver Gilbert III, Miami-Dade Aviation Department Director and CEO Ralph Cutié, University of Miami Dean of Engineering Pratim Biswas, and US Chamber of Commerce Senior Director for Transportation, Infrastructure and Supply Chain Sterling Wiggins.

The industry side was comprised of representatives from Wisk Aero, Supernal, Lilium and Regent, which manufacture the self-flying eVTOLS, as well as Skyport Infrastructure and Ferrovial Vertiports, which build the necessary facilities, landing and takeoff hubs for the autonomous craft.

As with any new technology, potential obstacles may hinder its widespread adoption. One of the primary barriers to adopting AAM is developing the appropriate regulatory framework.

The afternoon session, moderated by Mitchell Bierman, chair of the chamber’s Airports and Aviation Services Group, began by asking Mr. Wiggins a fundamental question: what needs to happen from a federal regulatory standpoint to make AAM a reality?

“From a broad scale, government perspective, it is to accelerate some of the steps needed to actually get these aircraft type certified… a lot of it stems from outdated thinking on how you certify aircraft,” said Mr. Wiggins. “It also comes from the silos of different parts of the agency not talking to each other. We have the FAA reauthorization this year and this is going to be a major opportunity to make a lot of those changes to the organizational structure and how things work within the agency to help make this happen.”

Mr. Bierman asked a similar question of Mr. Cutié on regulatory framework needed from a local viewpoint.

“To start that conversation, we have to talk about our concept of operations and how these things will function… where are they landing? Where are they taking off from?” Mr. Cutié said.

He detailed that several preliminary sites are being looked at around Miami International Airport, but they must be able to support different tracking technologies and vertiports needed for takeoff and landing.

“I think from a regulatory perspective, it’s going to involve a lot of different agencies in the county, obviously, aviation, our building department, and the regulatory agencies because they will be the ones approving what these vertiports will look like, all the drawings, permits, etc.,” Mr. Cutié continued.

He noted that neighboring localities and transit departments will have to get involved because feeder routes will connect Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and beyond.

When asked how AAM will change Miamian’s lives, Mr. Biswas responded that advanced technology development enables communities to be more efficient and equitable.

“Let’s say there’s an ambulance that’s taking a critical individual to the health center at the University of Miami… You can’t afford to be stuck in a traffic jam. So here, you can see the immediate impact. You want to interconnect communities, there are certain communities that have equity issues, and this is going to be an enabler to remove some of that,” said Mr. Biswas.

Mr. Bierman noted that autonomous craft are less expensive to operate than traditional airplanes or helicopters, which need a pilot on board. But that poses another problem for regulators and concerns for people who may fear flying in an unmanned craft. Mr. Gilbert said it would be challenging to switch directly to autonomous vehicles and the industry is initially looking to put a pilot in eVTOLs while people get used to the idea.

“People are going to see these flying cars, over their houses, over their parks over and their kids’ schools. So, we’re going to need time to actually build the confidence in the community that that this can happen,” Mr. Gilbert said.

In terms of price point, panelists didn’t provide an exact figure but agreed trips will be costly during the first few years of operation. When the technology becomes more mainstream, they said, prices will drop. The market will ultimately decide where the first vertiports will be located, as they will cater to more affluent residents and neighborhoods that can afford to use the service when it becomes available, they said.

Despite these potential obstacles, they cited numerous benefits to adopting AAM technology. For passengers, the reduced travel time and convenience offered by eVTOLs could drastically improve their quality of life. In addition, eVTOLs are significantly more eco-friendly than traditional air travel, which could help lower the overall carbon footprint of the transportation industry, they said.

Experts predict that AAM will be widely adopted in the next decade as regulatory kinks are worked out. While the development of this technology is still in its early stages, companies like Airbus, Boeing, American Airlines and Uber are investing heavily in the field. It’s conceivable that by the mid-2030s, panelists said, eVTOLs may become the norm for urban air travel, and they could fundamentally change the way we get around our cities.

Source:  Miami Today