Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) is gaining huge interest and traction as a new, innovative, and disruptive transportation service that will require a fully evolved ecosystem to support it. But as we focus on AAM in primarily urban spaces, we need also to question how feasibly it could benefit rural and regional communities too by being a potentially effective tool for levelling-up, says Rebecca Egan, aerospace consultant at Atkins, a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group.
The way we travel in the UK is changing. Electric cars and trains, shared on-demand Ubers, pay-as-you go e-scooters, and electric car-sharing schemes are already becoming a part of every day life for some. The battery technology to power new two to seven-seater eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft, and underpin a whole new transportation system, to offer emission-free air taxi services, is now also moving on apace, edging us further towards Net Zero flight. This is the dawn of Advanced Air Mobility (AAM).
Over distance, a transport network can be highly effective when its different modes are well-connected, significantly reducing travel times, and opening-up new opportunities for work, education, and leisure. The number of people aged 65-plus now living in rural areas is predicted to grow by approximately 50% by 2043, but there will be virtually no increase among 16–24-year-olds, suggesting that mobility and increased isolation are factors that will influence the decline of rural communities slowly over time. However, a recent report by the UK Government revealed that two in three people thought that improved transport links would have a positive impact on people’s ability to access job opportunities; good transport links form the foundations of equitable access for all.
Regional Air Mobility (RAM) could play a significant role in overcoming these problems as part of the wider transportation network, by helping to level-up and bridge the gap between populations, by countering the challenges of distance and congestion in regional locations, by better connecting rural communities, and by delivering vital supplies and services to currently poorly served areas. But introducing new vehicles and a new way of getting around is only one part of the overall picture. A full ecosystem must be developed around these new eVTOLs, or where there are runways, eCTOLs, (electric conventional take-off and landing) vehicles, to deliver RAM and integrate it into our existing airspace operations. That means everything from ground infrastructure and charging stations to regulation, certification, passenger security and experience, and public acceptance.
Communities currently under-served by current aviation could benefit from playing a key role in creating this ecosystem; with rural locations being in a prime position to offer accessible airspace that is significantly safer than densely populated, urban areas, while also providing relief to capacity-constrained aviation hubs. However, achieving last mile connectivity will be a crucial factor in determining how the RAM ecosystem develops for rural and regional use.
What will be built, and where? How will it operate? How could local people access new air taxi services at remote and rural airstrips if the last mile of connectivity isn’t accounted for? And crucially, what routes can be established and where? We must consider all elements that will need to be put into place to make an operation profitable if there is only very niche demand. Where will the customers come from? The solution must surely lie in having to carefully select routes where there will be a strong demand.
Added to which, these vehicles could be electric, hybrid, or powered by hydrogen fuel cells – and so an ecosystem will require landing and recharging infrastructure, could this be another potential ‘push’ factor for RAM? Where could they be located, and how could they develop? There are more than 2,000 disused or abandoned airfields, helipads, grass strips, and other flying sites located across the UK, and most regional aerodromes typically sit on large areas of underutilized land. While the majority of these sites would not be suitable as recharging ports, a significant amount are being used right now in demand modelling studies for RAM services. Could they also be suitably positioned to become, for example, solar farms, and for charging the batteries of electric aircraft and ground transportation vehicles?
To understand the economic impact that a revolution in RAM would bring is to understand the economies of individual regions throughout the UK and the role that air transportation plays within that. The time is fast approaching where local government and community leaders must acknowledge the changing transport landscape, and the need to integrate a whole new transportation system into those we already have if we are seeking to lift and level-up communities and breathe new life into disused aviation assets.
People have an appetite for improved mobility, through different forms of transport, so we need to determine how RAM can also bring societal benefit, because it will be important to make these new developments available to everyone who can benefit the most. We can inform this development by identifying use cases now, by looking at this new ecosystem in the round, and by remembering that first and last mile connectivity will be an important factor in determining how the ecosystem develops. We must also focus on what needs to come together if we are to take a lead in Advanced Air Mobility for rural and urban users alike, and set the standard for future developments.