Looking ahead, larger cities around the world are likely to have urban air mobility (UAM) in around 15 years. Thousands of air-taxi flights would take place daily in capital cities, not only in megacities if economic forecasts come true.

Flying cabs have a science fiction, if not science fantasy, feel to them. Many mobility experts, on the other hand, imagine a future in which lightweight, car-like vehicles fly through the skies over our towns, avoiding the congested streets. In the next five years, more than 250 companies of all sizes are planning to produce, develop, or operate these air taxis. Multi-rotor or multi-winged electric vehicles with a 30-to-300-mile range would be the most common. They will take off and land vertically, seat two to six people, and have a vertical takeoff and landing. Although some individuals will own such vehicles, we anticipate that the vast majority will be shared.

According to the latest projections, the global demand for this urban air mobility (UAM) market will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year once it hits size and maximum potential.

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UAM: Possible or attain or hard to conceive?

However, the route from here to there is unclear. UAM faces a range of obstacles, including technology, regulatory issues, public acceptance, air traffic control, and physical infrastructure, to name a few. It also needs to overcome a pilot challenge. These vehicles would finally be able to fly themselves, but due to technological challenges, regulatory considerations, and the need for public approval, it could take a decade or more. Until autonomous flight of hundreds or thousands of vehicles over cities around the world becomes a reality, the industry will need to hire, train, and deploy thousands of pilots—a significant but less noticeable obstacle compared to other problems.

The public will be more aware of UAM’s value proposition as a result of the pilots. They must, however, gain experience with this new mode of transportation and assist in the collection of data before taking off. Pilots must also be aware of wider operational challenges to help regulators and the general public gain trust in the industry’s safety and reliability.

COVID-19: Boon or Bane for the UAM Industry?

Before the pandemic, several well-funded and talented players stated that they planned to begin UAM operations by 2023. Of course, the COVID-19 crisis could slow down a few players and cause the start dates to be pushed back a year or two. However, based on reported launch dates and anticipated delays, performance rates, production ramp-ups, and market constraints, we estimate that the industry will need about 60,000 pilots by 2028, or about 17% of total commercial pilots in 2018.

Another significant challenge would be to develop a value proposition that will entice people to pursue careers as UAM pilots considering the high cost of basic flight training, the 12- to 24-month training cycle, and, most importantly, the unpredictable future. The UAM industry has been outspoken about the need to automate, which could restrict a UAM pilot’s career to a few years. Given the upfront training expense and the opportunity cost of training time without wages, the net present value of a five-year UAM career may be very poor or even negative, even if salary levels were in line with current early-career pilots (around $40,000 to $60,000 per year).

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Additionally, UAM piloting skills and experience may not be transferable inside or outside of the aviation industry. As a result, many people will think it is best to follow other careers.

Competitive Landscape / Major Highlights of the UAM Market:

  • Airbus, a multinational European aerospace corporation, is designing two electric UAM vehicles with the aim of providing short-hop flights between congested big cities and from suburbs to city centres at a cost comparable to conventional ground taxi service. The autonomous eVTOL Vahana demonstrator being designed by Airbus A3, the company’s Silicon Valley team, is the company’s first vehicle.
  • Joby Aviation, based in Santa Cruz, California, is one of the more clandestine air taxi startups. For its eVTOL aircraft, the company has spent the last ten years developing its own electric motors and technology.