Historians, economists and urban planners all have similar adages when it comes to the past – we need to learn from it, examine the mistakes of the past and understand the cyclical patterns that emerge in order to circumvent the same mistakes. Perhaps no one said it better than Spanish philosopher George Santayana when he said that “those who forget history are destined to repeat it”, and that refrain keeps coming back to me as the announcements go on. recent developments in advanced air mobility (AAM) and the drone. community were touted as the latest and greatest think tank to hit the industry – big steps forward for #BVLOS at the Farnborough Airshow.
If you are here at the Farnborough Airshow you will have noticed a massive change in the attendance of new entrants and new technologies. Both Wisk and Lilium have announced new orders or white papers detailing community engagement success and business expansion. Joby Aviation CEO JoeBen Bivert has announced the pursuit of type certification for their aircraft in the UK and a plan to support the expansion of commercial service to Scotland. Incumbents like P&W & Collins Aerospace have announced support for electric technologies and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). From new players to incumbents redefining the status quo, #FIA2022 started with a big bang looking towards the future of mobility.
One ad, however, got me thinking about the fundamental misunderstanding I keep picking up in the drone industry. This is a misunderstanding that I believe completely undermines the value and potentially revolutionary nature of drones and AAM. This announcement came from the UK government itself in partnership with a regional consortium and UK UTM technology leader, Altitude Angel.
While the drive to advance new technologies in general and trying to find a business case for strategic deconfliction of air traffic, alignment of corridors to foster economic viability, and even support the evolution of the next-generation aviation is to be hailed – the culmination of this drive manifests as a cocktail of inefficiency, inequity and limited value for operations that have clearly failed to include companies with operational experience in its development . The main reasons why this “highway in the sky” approach is probably not viable is the same reason why “vertiports for drones” continue to be a non-starter. Artificially gathering drones and flying cars into one place for take-off and landing, simply to facilitate surveillance or investing in ground infrastructure to circumvent the shortcomings of technological progress, will not win in the long run.
Trains and cars are so last century
First of all, the metaphor of “railroads” or “highways” in the sky is not good – Every time we see new technologies being developed and trying to be sold, we see the same metaphors worn by time for analogues. For vertiports these are airports for drones, for air corridors air corridors or highways, but today’s technological developments are revolutionary not for their ability to imitate existing infrastructures. They are disruptive because they bring the movement of goods and people closer to where people and goods need to go. Just as the Internet has enabled endless on-ramps to information flows, just as blockchain promises a decentralized banking experience without information asymmetry, just as the printing press has enabled ordinary people to access literature and religion away from centralized power centers to drone or fly-taxis promise an all-electric, low-carbon method of just-in-time, on-demand goods and travel without heavy overhead or professional training. This is to eliminate the heavily predefined point-to-point nature that defines highways or railways, and to support a decentralized method for security and customer service.
The future is not the fifth element
Second, tightly confining drones to highways close to each other and near passenger vehicles simply because of their autonomous nature seems like an imminent accident. Not only is a new type of vehicle, from different manufacturers or service providers, with limited hours of operation confined to the same flight environment (probably characterized by low risk on the ground, okay), but also solely due to of this characteristic. If we want to look back, as the idea behind this method clearly was, it’s like putting all your automobiles on one road and your horse-drawn carriages on another. This is a 2-dimensional planning method for a 4-dimensional world (the 4e dimension being time). It’s frankly inefficient, unlikely to bring value to operators, and will most likely lead to an outcome similar to the UAS pilots in the US where companies have gone elsewhere or sought other methods of flight as a way to a customer-centric scale.
This type of planning limits or eliminates the value of on-demand and emergency flights. If an order is placed with an air operation in Reading for delivery to Cambridge, that flight (based on the mapping in the video) will require an unnecessarily longer flight as it has to follow the route of the motorway. Whether it negates the value of the flight as a whole or reduces the value somewhat, the highway does not fulfill the overall goal of the autonomous flight industry – to promote safety, security, reliability and sustainability. A sustainable industry must have operational flexibility while protecting security and privacy.
Safety is no substitute for fairness
Finally, the use of the example of the railway and the highway is outdated for one last important reason: the societal impact. While the advent of rail systems allowed some communities to flourish and new jobs to emerge, it also led to the systemic destruction of impoverished communities and the beginning of environmental carbon devastation. We should certainly look to a better future, defined by a more sustainable, flexible, decentralized and inclusive model of air transport. One that includes the communities it intends to serve, and one that engages the industry that understands the trade-offs.
In other words, this transportation revolution doesn’t need to be modeled on the mistakes of the 1800s, or the 1900s. Let’s not fight yesterday’s war for efficiency, let’s redefine the way we live by the way we WANT to live. If you’re interested in how some cities are looking to redefine what’s possible, in partnership with industry, and in a way that supports the best of these new technologies, check out Sky Tenets urban people of the city of Los Angeles and the World Economic Forum.