Personal VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft could be the future of urban mobility. Shared or personal VTOL aircraft could help with traffic congestion, provide faster transport in urban zones, and run on clean electric energy, reducing pollution and exhaust fumes in our cities.
But the VTOL industry is still in its early stages, especially when it comes to the production of VTOL aircraft that would be practical, affordable, and safe for mass transit. And even as VTOL research continues to advance, there are a number of practical challenges that could face the development of VTOL Infrastructure.
In this blog, we’ll take a look at a few of the challenges that could face VTOL aircraft, and how these issues could affect the future of urban mobility using personal aircraft. Let’s get started now.
- Securing and Regulating Take-Off and Landing Facilities
In the future, it’s quite possible that VTOL will be the future for mid-distance commutes from the suburbs and other areas to cities and airports. Commuters may be shuttled by a personal aircraft to a centralized VTOL air station or “Vertiport”, from which they can reach the most densely-populated areas of the city.
But to be practical for intra-urban transport, there is a unique challenge facing VTOL craft – numerous small, regulated take-off and landing facilities must be acquired.
Why? Because if there are only a few VTOL landing facilities that are spread throughout the city, it will be impractical to use these aircraft to move through the city. Other point-to-point methods of intra-urban transport, such as taxis, buses, rail, cars, and even bicycles could be faster, if there are not a large number of conveniently-located VTOL stations.
- Air Navigation, VTOL Operation, and Pilot/Driver Licensing
Even the most basic personal VTOL aircraft systems can be expected to be quite complex. They will likely be more similar in functionality and design to helicopters and airplanes, rather than cars.
If individual drivers are to operate their own VTOL aircraft, there will be some major regulatory hurdles involved with the licensing and regulation of VTOL operators. Given the risk that aircraft can pose to buildings and other urban infrastructure, it’s likely that VTOL licensing will be tightly regulated and restricted – which could put it out of reach of day-to-day commuters.
However, this does pose an opportunity for a technology that’s already being used in cars and buses – autonomous piloting and navigation technology. If the navigation and operation of VTOL systems could be automated, it would be much easier to solve these problems.
An autonomous system would prevent crashes, and disallow unauthorized users from taking manual control of the aircraft. And because the autonomous system would be able to easily communicate both with other VTOL craft, as well as airplanes and helicopters, it would be much easier to control air traffic.
While there is a possibility that manually-operated VTOL aircraft could become commonplace, the risks to urban infrastructure simply seem too high. That’s why we anticipate that, in the coming years, much of the research and technology used in self-driving automobiles will be put to use in the automation of VTOL.
- High Initial Purchase or Ride Costs
This is likely to be an issue during the first phases of VTOL development. Due to initial low production volumes, the first VTOL aircraft will be expensive to build.
This means that, at first, VTOL is likely only going to be accessible as a personal mode of transportation for the wealthy.
Even if a “ride-sharing” model is adopted, similar to Lyft or Uber, the high costs of purchasing, running, and insuring a personal VTOL aircraft will initially make it more expensive to get a ride. Because of this, most people will simply continue to drive a car, take a subway or train line, or ride a bus to commute. It won’t initially be cost-effective to use a VTOL aircraft.
We expect that, over time, these challenges will be solved as VTOL becomes more commonplace. Advances in technology and widespread adoption will make these craft more affordable, and allow many more people to use them. But this will take years.
This means that research and development on how to reduce the cost of VTOL will be absolutely paramount while the technology is still in its early stages.
- Solving The Energy Density And Vehicle Efficiency Problem
Of all the hurdles facing the development of a working VTOL infrastructure, this is one of the most difficult. Batteries simply do not yet have the energy density levels required for personal, electric VTOL aircraft. Jet fuel is more than 50x more energy-dense, compared even to today’s most powerful batteries.
To address this, engineers must find a way to make batteries more energy-dense. They must also look at VTOL efficiency, and find ways for VTOL craft to become even more energy-efficient, to allow for continuous daily operation without requiring breaks in service for charging.
How long will it take for VTOL to be adopted?
The challenges that face VTOL as a mode of transportation are difficult, but they are not unsolvable. Here’s a thought experiment – if you told someone from 1998 that self-driving cars would be on the roads within just two decades, they would likely have laughed at you.
But due to the rapid development of technology in the last two decades, and the money being poured into research by large automakers as well as companies like Uber, self-driving cars are almost a reality.
We predict that VTOL will follow a similar cycle. Today, it may seem like a pipe dream. But as cities continue to grow more dense – and traditional road and rail networks can’t keep up with commuter demand – VTOL interest is likely to grow.
It’s hard to predict exactly when VTOL technologies will be adopted. It all depends on how quickly we can solve the major problems facing this mode of transportation. But we would not be surprised if the first major VTOL companies begin operation within a decade – and have reasonable adoption rates within 20 years. Beyond that, we can only speculate.
Which Cities Are Likely To Start Testing VTOL First?
VTOL has obvious benefits for cities of all sizes. However, we believe that these benefits will be maximized in cities which have large populations, but are quite spread out, with only medium population density. In addition, VTOL will likely be tested in areas that lack strong public transit – and rely primarily on buses and cars for commuting, rather than rail-based systems.
Think Los Angeles or Atlanta, rather than New York City or Hong Kong. VTOL has the most potential for saving time and increasing convenience when it’s used for slightly longer trips, and the fact that it will decrease congestion on roads will make it an attractive prospect to sprawling, medium-density urban areas.
VTOL – A Powerful Option For Enhancing Urban Mobility
VTOL has the potential to revolutionize the way that we take long-to-medium distance trips in major metropolitan areas. Even when it becomes widespread, it is unlikely that we will see it replace all other forms of transportation.
Rather, VTOL will be able to excel where some other forms of public and private transportation simply cannot. VTOL can offer the point-to-point efficiency and time savings of a taxi or a car, without congestion.
In addition, VTOL will offer more flexible routes and faster transport times, compared to rail and bus systems, and eventually, VTOL aircraft may be able to make long enough trips to replace short, regional airline trips.
By addressing the areas in which other forms of transportation are weak, and working alongside these methods of personal urban mobility, we expect VTOL to have a major effect on how we travel around both urban and suburban regions.
The hurdles facing the successful development of VTOL systems are numerous. But given enough time and research, we’re confident that they can be overcome, and that using a VTOL craft will become as common as riding in a bus, driving a car, or taking a train or subway car.