Use cases & solutions Urban air operations Policy and regulations

Airbus benefits from new UAM technologies

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Although the difference between a passenger aircraft and a drone seems almost unbridgeable, Airbus also invests heavily in the latest UAM technologies. That's for a reason. We interviewed Joerg Mueller, head of Urban Air Mobility and Jorge Chorniqué, Strategy Manager at Airbus. An insight into the strategy of Europe's largest aerospace pioneer.

Airbus has always looked to the future, investing in new technologies to push the aerospace industry further, including Urban Air Mobility. In recent years, this has resulted in flying demonstrators such as the Vahana and CityAirbus, with which Airbus mainly wanted to gain valuable experience, says Joerg Mueller, head of Urban Air Mobility at Europe's largest aircraft manufacturer. “With Vahana and CityAirbus, we wanted to be able to try out and research different designs as well as completely new things such as electric propulsion. It all fits into our global ambition for sustainable aviation: creating the next generation of aviation that is much more respectful to the environment.”

Mueller remains cautious though about predicting how quickly commercial drones will be able to carry passengers commercially, despite successful pilot projects around the world. “It's all about transporting people above cities which means that you are talking about highly safety critical applications. And the whole aerospace industry is very strongly dedicated to safety. This is ensured through a lot of regulation that needs to evolve, and systematic ways of maturing technology. Another constraint for the deployment of UAM is the ground infrastructure and the integration into the mobility system of cities that is not yet sufficiently developed. This is particularly difficult in cities where space is scarce. All this takes a lot of work and time. In the middle of the decade, we will likely see initial commercial applications. But until the entire ecosystem is able to start scaling, we will already be at the end of this decade.”

A New Digital Era
Mueller's colleague, Jorge Chorniqué, Strategy Manager at Airbus, outlines the situation surrounding UTM and ATM, a prerequisite for safe flying over cities. “It is not without reason that last year we published a white paper together with Boeing on this theme: A New Digital Era of Aviation; The Path Forward for Airspace and Traffic Management. In this paper, we provided our joint vision on how UTM can safely and efficiently advance future airspace and traffic management. UTM will offer digital and automated services which can pave the way for future services and new concepts of operation. At the same time, the conventional Air Traffic Management (ATM) also needs to evolve over time. UTM has an important role. Not only to enable new kinds of operations, but also to support and accelerate the transformation of conventional air traffic management.”
And that is not possible without involving all the different stakeholders, including governments and legislators, says Chorniqué. “To keep it scalable, interoperable and above all secure, we need everyone.” For this reason, Airbus also supports the establishment of the CATS (Complete Air Traffic System) Global Council. Chorniqué: “It is an interesting initiative to shape the future of future airspace management. We are also taking part in it ourselves to ensure that all the different initiatives will complement each other. It is not without reason that we participate in SESAR projects, like AMU-LED and we participate in initiatives like the CNS/ATM Panel of ICCAIA (International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations) at ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) to mention just a few. The same challenges are also considered there. Coordination is key to ensure all those initiatives do not reinvent the wheel every time, but ultimately get a workable, global and interoperable and secure system.”

According to Chorniqué, whether it will be possible to get a worldwide working airspace management system off the ground depends on several things. “Fortunately, there are already many initiatives to develop common standards in the world. At the same time, ATM is a subject that involves aspects of national sovereignty. A balance will therefore have to be found between those national interests and a global ecosystem. That requires a lot from rules and regulations and digital standards.”

Huge opportunity
It may seem strange to an outsider that an aircraft manufacturer like Airbus - which is best known for its large planes - is also involved in the development of the much smaller drones, but Mueller doesn’t think so: “UAM brings together a lot of different new technologies that have an impact on our current business: autonomous flying, electric propulsion, advanced manufacturing, novel concepts for Vertical Take Off and Landing. When you put all that together, you realize that there is a huge opportunity there to enter a new and complementary market to helicopters and airplanes. It is indeed 'a different ball game'. But we believe that with all our experience and embracing all those future technologies, we can make a difference and thus build a healthy new pillar for Airbus’ future activity. At the same time, it gives us the opportunity to learn, to develop new skills of our employees, and to mature all the different technical and operational elements. And that can be useful in other parts of our company. Think of our zero-emission aircraft or advanced helicopter concepts. So we benefit from these investments twice: being part of a new market as well as infusing this kind of technology into our traditional product range.”

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