The dream of flying cars that can zoom over urban traffic is a persistent one. Perhaps the most organized “urban air mobility” effort is the Uber Elevate Network, the “future of aerial ride-sharing.” Uber is working with partners like vehicle designers, manufacturers, infrastructure providers and regulators to begin testing vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles “as early as 2020.” Riders are to get the “option of an affordable shared flight” by 2023.
Considering the impact of the pandemic on the aviation industry, and on Uber itself, are such optimistic dates still viable? “We think it’s more important our vehicles go into operation when conditions are right for the vehicle and ecosystem,” says Andre Stein, Head of Strategy at EmbraerX, an Uber Elevate partner which recently launched an eVTOL simulator, (You can “fly”it here.) Stein adds, “We are trying to follow the right steps so we don’t develop a vehicle that might not be a fit for key urban transportation issues like noise.”
If they do start flying by 2023, eVTOL aircraft will not just start autonomously buzzing around world cities. Work to be done includes modifying or creating updated urban air traffic management (UATM) systems, developing simulators that can accurately mimic the behavior of a new generation of vertical and horizontal flight vehicles, and obviously, designing, building and testing the eVTOL vehicles. EmbraerX aim to be a player in all these areas.
Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer is probably best known for its regional E-Jets, 70 to 130 seat aircraft used. EmbraerX is a subsidiary dedicated to creating disruptive innovations such as eVTOL aircraft and urban air mobility.
Although a prototype has not yet been shown, EmbraerX has announced a concept vehicle. Luiz Valentini, Engineering Manager at EmbraerX, say the vehicle will offer a “lift plus cruise configuration. The design is said to have an 8-rotor configuration to take off and land vertically, plus a set of pusher propellers for fixed wing forward flight. The eVTOL will be battery-powered and all-electric.
It will fly initially with a single pilot with some degree of autonomy. As Valentini puts it, “No one is capable of manually adjusting 8 rotors at once.” Instead, it utilizes Embraer fly by wire technology. Designed for four passengers and a pilot (replaceable by a passenger when full autonomy arrives) or 1000-pound payload, it will have a range of up to 60 miles.
Embraer X recently successfully completed its first simulator flight in São José dos Campos, Brazil as part of the development of its eVTOL program.
The engineering development simulator is designed to replicate a real operating environment, in order to safely accelerate Embraer X’s flight test campaign. The eVTOL simulator provides a man-machine interface and incorporates realistic flight conditions and flight control parameters, including Embraer’s fly-by-wire flight controls. Interestingly, Embraer says the simulator was co-created with both experienced test pilots and relatively new pilots, as a goal is relatively simple operation using two control sidesticks or “scepters”.
Embraer X is one of the “world’s most innovative aircraft manufacturers” working with Uber Elevate to develop eVTOL aircraft built for aerial ridesharing. But to Embraer, urban air mobility (UAM) means both on-demand urban air services that carry passengers like Elevate as well as applications like carrying cargo across a metropolitan area.
Local travel by aerial vehicle has been around a suprisingly long time. As far back as the 1950s, Los Angeles Airways tooks passengers around spread-out Southern California. One of the most popular destinations was Disneyland. If Uber Elevate takes off, vertical flight in Los Angeles will make a comeback; LA, Dallas and Melbourne, have been chosen as launch cities.
“The older model was conventional helicopter, but today we have shared models like Blade, providing a price point more accessible to wider swathes of the public,” says David Rottblatt, Project Leader for EmbraerX’s Urban Air Traffic Management.
To create Air Navigation Systems (ANS) for eVTOL aircraft, it will not be necessary to reinvent the wheel. Embraer, through its ownership of Atech, which provides air traffic control software and hardware, is working with Air Navigation Service providers to create an environment where eVTOLs can successfully operate.
“An ANS can be “built on top of helicopter routes, at least at first, building on Embraer’s existing products in air traffic control,” says Rottblatt. “Our products currently manage 22 million square kilometres of air space in Brazil.” Sao Paulo, for example, “already has a strong air taxi market with upwards of 1,200 daily flights—everything you need to get started is in place,” says Rottblatt.
However, Rottblatt added that current helicopter routes for the air taxi market are generally not as direct as required for eVTOL aircraft. These may need to fly more directly over cites because of their relatively limited battery life.
For autonomous vehicles (much more sophisticated and airworthier than ‘flying cars’) to work in the real world, urban air traffic management (UATM) systems will have to be adopted in every city, as discussed in EmbraerX ‘s Flight Plan 2030. After all, no one wants an autonomous vehicle accidentally landing on their house.