Preparing for Urban Air Mobility Infrastructure

Guest blog post by Jacqueline Smith
with Ascension Global Founding Partners Pamela Cohn and Justin Towles

March 19, 2019

Pamela Cohn and Justin Towles are the founding partners of Ascension Global – a management consulting firm focused on Urban Air Mobility, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and innovation in aviation. Prior to founding Ascension Global, Pamela Cohn was a leader in McKinsey & Company’s aerospace & defense practice, and Justin Towles served as the VP for Federal and Regulatory Affairs for AAAE. They will be presenting at Aviation Week’s upcoming Urban Air Mobility Conference taking place in Atlanta, GA, April 9-10.

Realistically, how close are we to Urban Air Mobility becoming a reality?

This is a question we get a lot- people want to know when they can finally have the Jetsons-like future they’ve been promised for decades. UAM isn’t something that is going to happen overnight- you won’t wake up one day to see thousands of these vehicles flying overhead. UAM is a very complicated revolution in our mobility system that will require careful, incremental advancement and several “generations” of aircraft, airspace, and services. There are many factors that can impact the timing of this market, including changes in economics or business cases, infrastructure investment patterns and ownership structures, regulatory approaches, technological hurdles, and public acceptance. That being said, there is a lot of progress already underway in the community, and the journey is starting to move faster than you may expect. You can expect to see initial demonstrations of these (piloted) technologies in the skies by the mid-2020s, with initial commercial services popping up in early-adopter cities by the early-2030s. Ubiquitous, fully-autonomous systems are a bit further out, but each demonstration and major milestone brings us closer to a safe, efficient, and transformative system to help our communities tackle the biggest challenges in urban mobility.

Talk to me about UAM infrastructure: what is needed, and what challenges are you seeing in the market for getting this technology in place?

The reality is- without a robust system of physical infrastructure – in the form of skyports, skyhubs, and skystops – and airspace infrastructure, these impressive eVTOL designs are just flying science projects. But because infrastructure isn’t considered as flashy or exciting as vehicle technologies, it has received significantly less consideration and investment than other parts of the UAM ecosystem.

Solving the infrastructure equation for UAM will require significant investment and answers to key questions like: what is the appropriate blend of public versus private investment capital and resulting ownership structures? How can innovative Public Private Partnerships (PPP) be leveraged to ensure adequate and accessible urban networks of infrastructure? How can placement of this infrastructure be optimized to meet community needs, ensure fair access, and minimize environmental and noise impacts for communities? How can we ensure integration with other modes of autonomous transportation infrastructure?

Developing a robust and accessible UAM infrastructure network will require close collaboration with State, Local, Community, and Private sector stakeholders. An effective UAM infrastructure network will require innovative thinking on how to design systems with local needs in mind, and how to create monetizable financing mechanisms that facilitate appropriate investment while safeguarding public interest in core community mobility assets.

Is the technology for these vehicles at the stage yet where we need to be building and planning for this infrastructure now? Or is it still very far down the road?

While it might be a bit premature to begin building extensive networks of UAM infrastructure right now, the planning process – particularly in cities looking to be early adopters of this technology – needs to start soon. Building effective, accessible networks of UAM infrastructure is a uniquely local problem. UAM infrastructure will have a very different face for each individual community, and early assessment and understanding of these needs is critical to support the planning and development process. The path to UAM infrastructure sits across a diverse range of stakeholders, requires extensive community engagement and input, and will need to be integrated into long lead-time planning exercises. Early identification of local needs, characterization of infrastructure networks, and development of policy and strategy around key infrastructure requirements will be critical in paving the way for the systems to come.

What are these near-term key planning considerations that airports, states, and local authorities can undertake to position themselves as a player in UAM?

There are five key planning priorities in the near-term for organizations wanting to be on the leading edge. These include: (1) community acceptance: proactive engagement with local communities to understand their needs and concerns and integrate those perspectives early into planning and design processes; (2) regulatory engagement: early engagement with Federal regulators to clarify infrastructure requirements and standards and their impacts on design, cost, and investment; (3) distribution and design planning: study of local community patterns of life and mobility needs, and design of optimal infrastructure networks to meet local community requirements- this planning exercise will likely result in state and local initiatives around zoning, planning, funding, and financing; (4) evaluation of public versus private roles: assessment of appropriate roles and boundary conditions for public and private capital and operations for UAM infrastructure; and (5) public-private-partnerships: forging of strategic partnerships between airports, federal, state, and local authorities with industry and community groups around a set of common goals and initiatives to enable UAM infrastructure investment and development.

What strategies can airports and local authorities use to make building the necessary UAM infrastructure affordable?

There are two main opportunities to drive affordability for UAM infrastructure – both revolve around innovative monetization mechanisms. Should a state or local government wish to have a purely public network of assets, they can explore different monetization options to recuperate their investment over time through different fee structures. However, UAM infrastructure is actually a great candidate for leveraging public private partnership (PPP) investment and operational structures. PPPs provide opportunities to blend public and private capital to make public infrastructure funds go further, while ensuring robustness and scale of the infrastructure networks. Key to success with PPPs is establishing the appropriate definition of boundary conditions and roles, and creating monetization mechanisms that both create bankability for the investment, while safeguarding access and public interest in the assets.

To learn more about Aviation Week’s Urban Air Mobility Conference, including registration information, visit https://uam.aviationweek.com