Philbrick: To see where transportation is headed, look up

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Philbrick: To see where transportation is headed, look up
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Flying vehicles are no longer a thing of the future. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Do you remember the sitcom the Jetson’s ? They were a 1960’s futuristic family living with robotic inventions — they had smartwatches, drones, holograms, jetpacks, robotic […]


Flying vehicles are no longer a thing of the future. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Do you remember the sitcom the Jetson’s? They were a 1960’s futuristic family living with robotic inventions — they had smartwatches, drones, holograms, jetpacks, robotic help and more.

But what was once unimaginable in this innovative cartoon is now commonplace. For example, sales of wearable electronic devices — including smartwatches — are projected to top 73 billion by 2022 and people can buy drones with ease while kids can get hologram toys for as little as $15.49 on Amazon.

But the one item that is not readily available (and still seems super far out) is the flying car the Jetsons used to zip around. It sounds unimaginable but can the aerial transport similar to the Jetson’s be in development?

The answer is a resounding yes — in fact, a variety of emerging technological advancements in short and vertical take-off and landing aircraft are enabling new concepts for on-demand aviation intended for short distances of an approximately 50-mile radius in rural or urban areas, and up to a few hundred miles in intraregional use cases.

More than 400 novel aircraft, electric helicopters and personal flying devices are currently under development and the type of aircraft propulsion (hybrid, electric or fuel cell) can impact use cases and maximum flight range.

Sometimes referred to as advanced air mobility (AAM) and urban air mobility (UAM), these services enable consumers access to passenger mobility, goods delivery and emergency services (e.g., firefighting, medical response, etc.).

A number of pre-COVID market studies forecast a significant global market for such innovative mobility options. In fact, some estimates indicate the passenger mobility/goods delivery market will generate economic revenue to the tune of $2.8 to $4 billion by 2030.

To that end, a number of manufacturers and service providers have announced they will be starting passenger operations over the next three to five years. For example, Lilium is developing a five-seat air taxi with planned service in Florida. Santa Cruz-based Joby Aviation has recently acquired Uber Elevate with plans to launch a similar air taxi service.

And while you might think that the cost to “hail” an air taxi would be exorbitant, a market study commissioned by NASA estimates passenger services would cost $6.25 per mile in the near term using a five-seat electric vertical take-off and land aircraft. In comparison, a ride in Lyft or Uber typically costs $1 to $2 per passenger mile.

But as we all know, just because an innovative service is available it does not mean it will be greeted openly by potential users. The thought of people whizzing through the sky causes some to smile in anticipation and others to shy away in fear.

Challenges to implementation include community acceptance, safety and privacy issues, planning and implementation concerns, airspace rights, social equity implications, and more — all of which create barriers to mainstreaming.

Nevertheless, in the United States, AAM research and operational concepts are being advanced at the federal government. Last year, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released the UAM Concept of Operations (ConOps) detailing the air traffic management vision to support the anticipated growth of flight operations in and around urban areas.

Additionally, the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP) is helping the federal government develop new rules for unmanned aircraft (e.g., drones) and is provided funding to evaluate proposed operations, including package delivery, under a variety of operating conditions.

The global pandemic has impacted the trajectory of the industry. Over the past year, for example, there has been a growing number of AAM pandemic use cases implemented and under consideration — such as using drones for social distancing reminders, sanitation (e.g., crop dusting/spray disinfectant), essential equipment and goods’ delivery, and virus detection.

And we have also seen drones used to promote reading and educational attainment such as when a middle school in Montgomery County, Maryland, began using drones to deliver library books during the school’s closure.

In Africa drones are increasingly being used to transport COVID-19 test samples from remote areas that don’t have testing facilities to laboratories in urban centers. Drones are also being used to expand access to medical care for patients who are unable to travel due to COVID-19 quarantines, such as delivering cancer drugs to patients in remote villages. In some areas, drones have reduced the time required to access medical supplies and testing from a day of driving to less than 30 minutes by drone.

While the pandemic has the potential to increase familiarity with these emerging technologies and use cases, some have raised concerns about privacy, civil liberties and efficacy in achieving desired health and policy goals.

What seemed impossible in a cartoon from the distanced past has become a reality today. Emerging mobility technologies — whether for the transport of people or goods — has, and will, continue to change the face of how we move. So look up, you never know what surprises the sky might hold.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.

Adam Cohen, senior researcher with the Mineta Transportation Institute and the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, co-authored this column.

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