Major market forces appear to be pushing the US towards higher utilization of airborne traffic in many sectors: package delivery, mapping, resource management, emergency services, and both commercial and personal transportation. Technology advances are empowering a more rapid potential to change the way we ship goods and transport people. While recent focus has been on the Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) approach advanced by Google, Uber, Amazon and others, this paper will explore the major steps that are required for increased implementation of these technologies, and identify the mid-range goals that will be required in order to eventually reach the more distant long-range goal of VTOL vehicles.
As the technology is being pushed forward that would enable true point-to-point transportation, any such transportation system can be held back by problems in any part of the overall system – not just the key technology itself. There are infrastructure, legal, regulatory, as well as market acceptance issues related to autonomous VTOL flying vehicles that could easily postpone any significant use of VTOL operations for decades. There are mid-range goals and steps towards the long range goal that will be essential to successfully bridge the transition to a flying transportation system.
Where to begin
The history of flying cars is nearly as long as the history of flight. Commercial success in introducing flying cars, however, has obviously been lacking. More recent attempts using modern materials and designs have produced viable flying/driving vehicles, such as the Terrafugia Transition, PAL-V, Aeromobil, and the Switchblade – all now nearing production. These vehicles are not VTOL, and they all attempt to utilize both existing airport, and roadway, infrastructure to provide a form of point-to-point transportation without significant legal or regulatory changes being required.
The VTOL approach has broad appeal in that the vehicles are generally designed for fully electric flight, and operate as a more direct point-to-point transportation system. They have a greater potential to provide fully autonomous transportation, and can avoid being subject to dual regulations that may hamper the more traditional flying car designs. The VTOL type of approach requires not only the technology of the vehicle itself, but, for at least developed areas, a massive change in infrastructure required for take-off and landings in close proximity to wherever people or packages would need to be transported. In addition, significant regulation and legal changes will need to be adopted to allow this type of transportation to grow beyond the boundaries of traditional helicopter and aircraft operation.
Infrastructure changes required
You simply have to imagine the many places each day and week that you would want to visit in order to grasp the scope of the changes required. A short list might include your home, work, grocery store, school, library, family or friend’s home, other shopping, restaurant, theater, golf course, hospital, doctor’s office, dentist, dry cleaning, parks, recreational areas, and perhaps church. Now imagine each of these locations having to set up a place for VTOL vehicles to at least land and take-off, let alone parking for personal VTOL vehicles adjacent to the take-off zones. Even if you eliminate those places which could be served by small VTOL delivery vehicles not requiring significant landing infrastructure, this still leaves huge numbers of locations that would need to be identified, purchased or funded, designed, approved, and built. For safety reasons, these take-off and landing zones would need to be free from obstructions, overhead wires nearby, trees, light poles, and not adjacent to pedestrian traffic.
One could say we should locate them on the rooftops of existing multi-story buildings. For this to occur, existing buildings would have to have been designed to accept the weight of a landing vehicle, and possibly a crash-landed vehicle in case of emergency. These are significant loads, not easily added to an existing structure. Obviously, in new construction this could work very well. For areas in the world where there is significant growth forecast, such as Asia and India, this could be accomplished to a much greater degree.
To truly utilize VTOL transportation, one should be able to take-off and land from one’s home. There would be many scenarios for residential infrastructure handlings, since housing comes in many forms – single family homes, duplexes, townhomes, or apartment buildings. In most major apartment buildings, one might be able to take a portion of their parking lot or a grass area, and allow that to become a fenced take-off and landing zone. Again, one would need to have the land available, make it safe by removing nearby obstacles or impediments to flight, and create some sort of safety feature to preclude someone from walking out under a landing vehicle, or to prevent a barking dog from running to and fro under the landing vehicle, upsetting the landing sequence or preventing landings entirely. For this type of transportation, we are not able to utilize large airfields with restricted access. People and animals will have to co-exist with the transportation system just like they do today, with cars on a street. Unlike cars, flying vehicles do not have brakes that can stop the vehicle quickly. Electric vehicles cannot ‘hover’ indefinitely due to some obstruction, as the batteries will quickly be drained.
For lower density housing, the only potential that might be viable is to create neighborhood landing zones within a short walk from housing, or with a small waiting building or shelter that is serviced by an on-call ground taxi to your home. This is not as convenient as landing on an apartment building rooftop and taking the elevator down, but most low density housing would not have a place large enough to provide a landing spot for each residence. In rural areas, individual VTOL landing zones could be easily accomplished.
There are noise issues not addressed in this section of the report, but these are important issues to be dealt with when ascertaining viability. No one would want to live in a neighborhood that was constantly being inundated with loud noise from transportation in or out. The obvious truth to this is spotted in the complaints continually levied against existing airports, even when people moved into homes located under airway routes already in existence. Imagine what would happen if constant loud noise was introduced to formerly quiet neighborhoods.
In any of the above infrastructure categories or locations, there are two alternate scenarios that affect the overall infrastructure size. The first is the Uber concept, where no one owns a car, and all transportation services are satisfied by on-call taxi. In this case, a central dispatch center houses the waiting air taxis, and a computer program routes vehicles in service for a logical connection between passengers until a vehicle needs to be recharged back at central dispatch or other recharge station. This scenario reduces the cost of infrastructure, as it isn’t necessary to have significant ‘parking’ for the VTOL vehicles while the owners are engaged in their business on-site. The second scenario involves individual ownership of vehicles, and would require additional parking, or replacing some of the existing on-site ground vehicle parking with VTOL parking.
Regulation changes required
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently moved to a new and potentially faster method of aircraft certification¹. With this now in place, there is the opportunity to propose electric flight solutions – an opportunity which we did not have previously in the US. This regulation change should open the door to certified electric flight. Beyond that, however, there are a host of new regulations or regulation changes required for VTOL landings outside the existing helipad or airport operation areas. By putting whirling blades within close proximity of people passing by, one can imagine that there will be considerable debate and work required to formulate strategies to maintain safety, mitigate noise pollution, and develop contingency planning for unexpected landings, that will have to be worked out before wide-spread adoption and use of a VTOL-based transportation system can become a reality.
The latest major regulation change at the FAA spanned eight years², and the final wording alone took four years to accomplish. The changes recently made involved a new way to handle an existing process that was very well understood. It is extremely unlikely that new regulations covering completely new territory, that will likely be very contentious, would take any less time. This means that the earliest we could see regulations allowing use of any VTOL outside of existing helipads would be at least ten years, and could be twenty years due to the complexity of the issues.
Legal changes required
With autonomous flight and no pilot onboard, legal changes will need to be adopted to reflect the change in liability. The vehicle itself would be capable of ‘pilot error’, which in the past was the responsibility of a person (pilot). Vehicle manufacturers will be accepting additional layers of liability for operation of these types of vehicles³. Consumer protection will need to step in to ascertain what standards would be needed for proper maintenance of a vehicle for a 2-4 passenger air taxi type operation, and the level of software and guidance protection required to prevent flights from being hijacked by those who may wish others harm4.
There will need to be some way to prevent the use of an air taxi to deliver explosives or other harmful cargo as there would no longer be risk to any human carrier (it would be acting like a drone bomb). Additionally, it would need to be sorted out how to interact with the overall air traffic system to ensure nobody directs individual electric VTOL vehicles on a longer route than anticipated by its initial flight programming, causing the vehicle to run out of charge before reaching the destination. These are the very complicated issues that would need both technological and legal resolution before adoption of a passenger carrying VTOL transportation network.
Package carrying autonomous VTOL (large drones) could be integrated with fewer issues, but not a great degree fewer. If the vehicle size were kept small, and the drone flight paths were kept lower than typical aircraft would fly, the risk of accidental mid-air collision would be reduced greatly. The remaining issue with low flying autonomous drones or vehicles would be firstly avoiding piloted helicopters and bird strikes, which could cause malfunction sufficient to drop a vehicle to earth. And secondly, the privacy and security issues related to cameras flying over people’s homes6.
The Mid-Game Solution
The barriers listed above are not to be solved in years, but in decades. In the meantime, our ground-based transportation system continues to grow increasingly overloaded, which wastes precious time and energy – anticipated to grow to $2.8 Trillion annually by 20306. Other studies conclude that reducing highway capacity will actually reduce the volume of miles traveled by commuters7, and while there may be merit in this assumption, there is a range of costs involved with congested traffic that these studies do not address, including mental agitation 8. There are solutions such as monorails, bullet trains, subway systems, double-decker highway systems, among others. The issue with these are the ballooning costs and time to complete such upgrades to our infrastructure, along with the delays that this type of construction brings to the existing highway and street system. There have also been public acceptance issues, leading to low levels of passengers in some areas with new public transit systems9.
In contrast, increasing the number of driving/flying vehicles can be accomplished without any significant increase in infrastructure expense, time, or inconvenience to others. By increasing the number of vehicles that can both drive and fly, one can actually reduce the time spent by non-flying travelers during peak traffic times such as commute traffic. US Department of Transportation (DOT) studies show that by removing as little as 3-5% of the vehicles from the highway during peak traffic times, would allow the rest of the traffic to nearly double in speed. So a very small percentage change can have a huge effect on the time and money spent by the majority of travelers, not to mention the decrease in trucking delivery times and associated cost reductions of shipping.
By having the capability to both drive and fly, people and goods can be driven from their point of origin to the nearest airport (usually 15 miles from where most people live in the US), fly from airport to airport, land and drive the final few miles to the destination. This can work whether autonomous or people piloted vehicles are used, allowing for greater flexibility in future years.
The existing small airport system is an under-utilized asset within the US and many other countries. Cities should be encouraged to increase the number of small airports within their boundaries, rather than convert existing airports to other uses. We need to allow growth of the one transportation solution that does not require massive infrastructure improvements, that does not slow down existing traffic while being implemented, and that actually begins reducing the drive time of other commuters incrementally, the more extensively it is implemented.
As cities become larger and encompass more ground area, there should be land set aside for future airport construction. This is obviously a land use and planning function to be carried out at the County or City level within the States of the US, but the federal government can encourage such foresight by tying grants and federal funds to this type of future planning. An example of a Federal and State program that has increased the purchase and use of electric vehicles, is the rebate program. This program has encouraged many tens of thousands of people to purchase an electric or hybrid vehicle, and could be utilized again to do the same with flying cars.
One element that will become extremely necessary is noise reduction. Regardless of the type or method of aircraft propulsion, being noisy when taking off and landing is not going to be acceptable for increased air transportation use. We need to design vehicles that produce less than half the noise generated by current aircraft. It will be impossible to increase the number of airports of any kind, VTOL or otherwise, without significant noise reduction. This should be made a high priority for any new aircraft or flying vehicle certification, or required for access to certain airfields adjacent to residential areas.
With quieter flying/driving vehicles, and even relatively small portions of the overall traffic moving into the air, great improvements in quality of life can be made for vast numbers of people, the environment can be improved through reduction of CO2 and carbon monoxide, and the flexibility of travel can be increased as people will be able to decide when to fly and when to drive – all on their own schedules.
The next few decades will see tremendous change in transportation, for better or for worse. Expanding the use of the existing network of small airports, and even increasing the numbers of small airports, is a certain way of increasing the rate of change towards that future airborne transportation system. At the same time, this would reduce peak demands on the already overburdened ground-based transportation systems. The more traffic we can place in the air, the lower the requirements for ground-based infrastructure changes that governments may deem necessary, which can reduce the transportation infrastructure cost we have to deal with in the decades to come.
At any given time, around the world, there are only 10,000-16,000 commercial aircraft in the air at the same time. There is vast space above the ground, with layers and layers of flying traffic possible. The skies have the capacity to keep traffic moving at great speed throughout the rest of this century.
There are over 1,000 times more cars on the road than aircraft in the sky in the US. Whether the future brings autonomous vehicles or not, having an outlet for ground-based traffic by encouraging air transportation not only makes good sense, but also points the way to the future. Generations have dreamed of a future in the air. We know it is coming. Let’s give it a hand.
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