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By Elan Head

An award-winning journalist, Elan is also a commercial helicopter pilot and an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument ratings. Follow her on Twitter @elanhead

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How long before air taxis are profitable? NASA guesses a decade

Based on information supplied by the emerging urban air mobility (UAM) industry, NASA expects it will be around 10 years before commercial air taxi operations are widely viable for passengers and profitable for operators.

NASA UAM Maturity Levels
NASA has defined six UAM maturity levels in relation to its UAM Grand Challenge Series. NASA Image

Speaking at the Global Urban Air Summit in Farnborough, U.K., on Sept. 4, NASA advanced air mobility project manager Davis Hackenberg outlined the agency’s conceptualization of six UAM maturity levels (UMLs). They range from UML-1 — defined as late-stage certification testing and operational demonstrations in limited environments — to UML-6, at which point eVTOL air taxi operations will be ubiquitous and optimized with system-wide automation.

NASA anticipates seeing UML-1 in 2021. While the agency hasn’t yet predicted a timeframe for UML-6, Hackenberg suggested that by 2028 to 2030 the industry could reach UML-4, characterized by medium density and complexity operations with collaborative and responsible automated systems.

“When you get to this medium density, medium complexity, you start talking about hundreds of vehicles in a city,” said Hackenberg. “You can really easily start to see how these hundreds of vehicles [can] move about 60,000 people a day. . . . It’s really [at UML-4] when you look at the financials that the industry starts to become profitable.”

This conceptualization of UMLs is guiding NASA’s UAM Grand Challenge Series, a sequence of demonstrations that will support requirements and system development for scalable, commercial UAM operations. The first of these challenges is planned for 2022, but the agency is seeking a limited number of organizations to participate in developmental testing starting later this year.

NASA UAM Grand Challenge
NASA is planning integrated demonstrations of realistic operational scenarios to support the development of scalable, commercial UAM. NASA Image

The UAM Grand Challenge is specifically focused on operations and safety, which means that participants will need to supply the necessary technology, including the air taxis themselves. “We’re not going to build a vehicle; we’re not going to pay for a vehicle,” Hackenberg said. Instead, NASA is aiming to bring together vehicle and technology providers in urban air mobility scenarios that will culminate in scaled urban demonstrations, similar to recent demos with small unmanned aircraft systems in Reno, Nevada, and Corpus Christi, Texas.

According to Hackenberg, NASA has already built out some of these scenarios and is in the process of testing them in simulation labs. For early challenges, including developmental testing, the agency plans to establish a dedicated test range within restricted airspace. However, participants in the Grand Challenge will have the option of conducting their demonstrations at any suitable test range in the U.S. or abroad: “any vehicle company who wants to fly anywhere, it’s open,” he said. “You don’t have to come to our range.”

Each challenge will have specific objectives, such as accelerating certification and approval processes for eVTOL aircraft and system components. Hackenberg said NASA intends to “leverage Grand Challenge as a place to gather data, develop solutions, and document those into things that the industry can use: standards, methods of compliance, and so on and so forth.”

Hackenberg noted that many UAM players are targeting very ambitious timelines — and that the Grand Challenge will also reveal whether they’re on track to meet them.

“We’re trying to match the industry’s timeline . . . even though we realize it’s pretty aggressive,” he said. “If they’re moving as fast as they say, it’s NASA’s goal to move as fast as them. If we find out that they’re not quite where they want to be, then we’ll match their pace.”

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