Building the “apps” to support eVTOL ridehailing is a relatively simple task, at least when compared with the other challenges facing the future of urban air mobility (UAM). However, designing the right interfaces will play a key role in fostering public acceptance of the burgeoning market, according to industry experts.
Much of the digital infrastructure needed to support future UAM has already been built or is an advanced stage of development. In many cases, the groundwork has been laid, and simply needs to be adapted or enhanced.
This is perhaps most clearly exemplified by the Uber ride-sharing app. The company has launched a high-profile project aimed at expanding its presence in the aerial domain, known as Uber Elevate. As well as focusing on the platforms and their associated technologies, this project will develop Uber Air, allowing users to book a flight on an eVTOL platform through their smartphone or similar device.
Uber Air would not require users to download a separate app, said a spokesperson for the company. Instead, customers would see Uber Air as an option in the existing app, which would be capable of organizing the user’s journey from their current location to a Skyport, through using a car, a scooter or an e-bike, for instance.
“The goal is to bring everything into one place,” the spokesperson said. “It’ll just be an additional service offering when you open Uber.”
The company recently launched Uber Copter, which allows users to book helicopter journeys via the app between Manhattan and JFK International Airport in New York City. This is part of Uber’s efforts to understand how Uber Air could one day work, the spokesperson said, understanding what the logistics look like for getting riders to and from a takeoff and landing location and finessing the user experience.
“Given that we don’t yet have eVTOLs that we can test in the sky and put riders in, we wanted to use the time between now and when that is a possibility to really understand how riders behave when you offer them an aerial option,” the spokesperson said.
However, the spokesperson stressed that Uber Copter is not viewed as a formal precursor to Uber Air. It is “more of a stepping stone, part of our development in understanding how riders will react to such a service.” While there will be some unique configurations in the app that will have to be created for Uber Air, “ultimately we aren’t having to reinvent the wheel, because we’ve done this a number of times with other product offerings.”
In terms of public acceptance “the app is probably the easy bit,” said a spokesperson for Lilium, which is aiming to launch its Lilium Jet in 2025. The company has started to recruit team members to support its vision and is taking steps towards testing the app architecture that will be needed to support the service, with this aspect “at the front of our mind throughout the process.”
This digitalization work goes beyond the interface that would be displayed on a smartphone or a tablet or other device, the spokesperson added, with the company’s software development and engineering teams also looking at “behind the scenes” digital work in areas like flight scheduling, pricing and demand management.
While designing eVTOL apps is relatively simple, its importance should not be underestimated, the spokesperson added.
“It serves as an important portal to make our service accessible and understood by wider communities that may play host to our service in the future,” the spokesperson said. “If potential customers could use our app to rapidly understand our service then it may improve their understanding of our service more generally, helping with public acceptance.”
Bell is taking a number of strides in the UAM space, most obviously through its Nexus and Autonomous Pod Transport (APT) platforms. The company has also expanded its footprint in the digital space. In January at CES it launched Bell AerOS, the company’s digital backbone that will give operators, maintainers and cities a 360-degree view into their fleet through an integrated data platform.
“We found that the future vertical lift market and the future UAM market was really going to demand a full ecosystem of solutions beyond just the aircraft,” said Naveed Siddiqui, technology partner at Bell. This led the company to explore the idea of digital solutions and services that could integrate with aircraft, unmanned aerial system traffic management (UTM), and physical infrastructure like vertiports or skyports.
Bell AerOS runs on Microsoft Azure, allowing users to manage large fleets of eVTOLs and other aerial platforms (whether in passenger transport or goods delivery), along with observing their health, performing predictive maintenance and more.
“We started looking at how a fleet of aircraft could perform what one larger aircraft can do — can we get smarter about how we position fleets to solve the problems that our customers are facing? That’s when we started dabbling in cloud solutions, because we understand that there’s going to be a heavy data requirement in these systems.”
The aim is for the system to be platform-agnostic, said Siddiqui. While it is being positioned to optimally integrate with Nexus and APT, the company could look to offer it independently of Bell platforms in the future, he added.
However, there are a number of challenges ahead, Siddiqui said. In common with all apps, privacy and data security will be major concerns, with Bell aiming “to architect it from the beginning to be secure.”
The future of UAM is also sparking interest among companies with little background in aviation. For example, Otis Elevator Company recently collaborated with Sikorsky and Helinet Aviation to demonstrate a new vision of UAM at CoMotion LA, where an adapted version of Otis’s eCall smartphone app was used by participants to guide them to an elevator and to the rooftop of a parking garage and to a heliport. The app communicated with the elevators, avoiding congestion by telling the users which elevators to take and reducing wait times by calling an elevator as a user approached.
“The majority of infrastructure surrounding street to rooftop travel is already in place and can be easily adapted to meet any UAM-specific needs,” said Chris Smith, vice president of global marketing and product strategy at Otis. “While not originally designed for booking an air taxi, eCall could enable practical UAM by allowing pedestrian traffic to move seamlessly between city streets and rooftops or helipads.”
It will be necessary for companies in different infrastructure areas to partner between themselves and with aerospace specialists, as Otis has done with Sikorsky, he added.
It is crucial to ensure there is a seamless integration between the digital and physical interfaces, said Jonathan Hartman, disruptive technologies lead for Sikorsky Innovations. For example, “if the elevator stops three floors short of the rooftop where the helipad is, that’s a physical barrier that we will need to address. Those are the sorts of questions we’re going to start asking at an industry level going forward pretty quickly.”
On that point, Smith noted that most buildings do not currently offer rooftop access via an elevator, though he said Otis offers specific elevators that can be installed to navigate the last few floors.
The Voom on-demand helicopter booking platform is already being used in Sao Paolo, Brazil; Mexico City, Mexico; and the San Francisco Bay Area in the U.S. The app can be used to book urban helicopter flights across a range of platforms, not limited to the offerings of the European aerospace giant.
The data being gathered in these cities will inform the expansion of the app into the eVTOL space, said Clément Monnet, chief executive officer (CEO) at the Airbus subsidiary, who noted that many of the potential challenges with using apps in the eVTOL space can only be identified through such experience.
“We are collecting a lot of insights about consumer preferences and also operational impediments and operational constraints,” he said. “It’s a great way for us to know how to optimize these operations when we complement helicopters with eVTOLs.”
Julien Etaix is an investment manager at Upfront Ventures. He previously was a partner at Airbus Ventures and still carries out some work with the aerospace company’s early-stage venture capital company. He said that while future UAM faces many challenges — pointing in particular to a lack of pilots ahead of the full-scale acceptance of autonomy — apps and digitalization have already advanced significantly, and are unlikely to create an impediment to the future of the space.
“Apps are not the bottleneck,” he said.