Airbus, along with around 30 key stakeholders, chose Germany to build an urban air mobility ecosystem. Dubbed the Air Mobility Initiative (AMI), the partners have garnered the support of the Free State of Bavaria and the Federal Republic of Germany, along with many other important players.
There are three fundamental areas for the Air Mobility Initiative: the eVTOL aircraft, the ground infrastructure, and the unmanned traffic management. With a €86-million (US$87-million) budget and three years to accomplish its scheduled projects, we spoke with Markus May, head of operations for urban air mobility (UAM) at Airbus, Ivonne Kuger, executive vice president of corporate development at Munich Airport International, and Jan Eric Putze, CEO of Droniq GmbH, to find out more about the initiative and what we can expect to see by 2025.
The following is an interview with Markus May — the first in a three-part article series discussing the AMI. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
eVTOL.com: Having an entrepreneurial mindset in a corporate environment is very difficult to achieve and you were able to achieve it. How did you start the Airbus Urban Mobility GmbH?
Markus May: In 2018, we started Airbus Urban Mobility as a field of expertise. We come from an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) background. Airbus is excellent at designing, manufacturing, and developing aircraft and helicopters. But it is not just about a flying vehicle. We needed to address different pillars of the value chain and get a whole ecosystem to work together. We created a smaller entity with startup principles because we were — and still are — looking for a product-market fit.
We investigate two areas: developing an eVTOL aircraft, which is the CityAirbus NextGen, and being the architect of an air mobility transport system for cities and communities. Along with the three technical pillars [eVTOL aircraft, ground infrastructure, and air traffic management services] there are also other foundational aspects that we’ll need to address, like social acceptance, regulation, safety and security, as well as a user-centric design.
eVTOL.com: Can you explain what the Air Mobility Initiative is and what the group aims to accomplish?
Markus May: We want to build an MVP, a minimum viable product, for an air mobility transport system in an urban environment. That means we want to fly a passenger from point A (an airport) to point B (a city environment) with a vehicle like the CityAirbus NextGen. To do so, a U-space in the urban environment will be set up in order to create visibility amongst the different actors in the lower airspace.
With all these factors involved, our ambition is to make the whole transport system work together with all necessary players of the ecosystem. We are not replacing anything that currently exists. We are adding a complimentary means of transportation to an existing urban transportation system. Beyond that, we want to make sure that it is accessible to the public and an easy choice for the citizen who needs to commute between cities or communities.
Since 2020, we have been building a foundation with 30 partners as a collective effort to begin the process. And since we are shaping this new mode of transport in an existing world, it is obvious that there are compromises to be made and stakeholders to be convinced.
eVTOL.com: Do you intend to grow your partnerships within the initiative?
Markus May: This initiative is open and evolving. There will be new partnerships created as a result of new projects. We are in the process of defining new projects with new partners, but I cannot discuss it yet. With each individual project, we build one brick after another.
We are currently preparing new funding projects for this year.
eVTOL.com: How long have you had your sights set on Germany?
Markus May: There were several reasons behind what drove us toward southern Germany. There is an existing ecosystem of innovation for mobility in general. There are many startups that are in the region working on mobility, as well as established automotive and technology companies.
We also have an Airbus presence close by. Both divisions, Airbus Helicopters and Airbus Defense and Space, have testing and industrial sites in the area. We have a lot of support and resources with engineering experience in vertical lift. We can also discuss electrical flight and autonomy with the surrounding businesses. This technology is so new that if we were to set up somewhere else, we would not have this type of support and resources surrounding us as we do here in Munich.
eVTOL.com: Can you describe what the government landscape is like in Germany to help facilitate innovation and advancement of UAM in comparison to other regions, such as the U.S.?
Markus May: The Bavarian government had a strong willingness to make this happen. At the federal level, they wanted to see UAM in Germany. That is why they put together the budget and created a dedicated funding scheme to make this happen. We are very grateful for this financial support. The next step is now the creation of living lab environments to prototype, test and design the entire UAM ecosystem.
Comparing Germany with the U.S., companies in the U.S. seem to have strong support from the government and military. We probably have a little bit less in Germany and Europe in general.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), two major regulators, are getting closer to aligning regulations. eVTOL aircraft certification will be aligned by both regulators, as it is today with helicopters and other classic aircraft. The alignment may take a few years but, in the meantime, we are making sure that we continue to follow high safety standards.
eVTOL.com: What are your thoughts about the FAA’s decision to change the way it certifies winged eVTOL aircraft? Does Airbus plan to have its EASA type certificate validated in the U.S. and other areas? If so, do you have any concerns about getting your type certification validated?
Markus May: We have been working very closely with EASA and will continue to work with them. Our goal is to certify with EASA first, then work with the FAA for approval. Everyone faces the same challenges when trying to certify their eVTOL aircraft. There are a lot of completely new designs being made, and the safety regulations will have to be designed as a comprehensive and reliable framework.
eVTOL.com: You’re working with a budget of €86-million (US$87-million) over a span of three years. What goals do you plan to accomplish over this period? When does Airbus plan to start UAM operations?
Markus May: We will start UAM operations when we can ensure a transport solution and a mature ecosystem. In the meantime, we are building this solution step-by-step. We want to prototype how UAM operations will look in different environments, while regulations are still evolving. And hopefully we can launch this program by the middle of the decade.
We are working with Droniq to implement U-space to ensure integration of eVTOLs into the airspace. We also want to have the ground infrastructure set up and ready before we go into production.
As there is a new regulation taking into effect beginning in 2023, the objective is to set up the first U-space with Droniq in Bavaria. It is not a new airspace, but it will allow us to test the airspace to integrate eVTOLs with drones and helicopters so that we have different vehicles visible to each other in the same airspace. We would like to test this for a longer period as a laboratory environment.
Another important step is to work on operations, which includes ground infrastructure. We will build a vertiport prototype to see what processes we need on the ground. We want to efficiently integrate the processes with end-to-end logic. For instance, door-to-door travel time, which would be the amount of time it takes passengers to travel from their starting place to their ultimate desired destination.
eVTOL.com: Does the Air Mobility Initiative allow for other eVTOL OEMs to launch their vehicles through this program, or is the project exclusively for Airbus?
Markus May: Eventually, there will be different eVTOLs operating in the market. Until then, we are all pioneers of this aerospace revolution. Obviously, we’re focusing our attention on the CityAirbus NextGen from a vehicle perspective. But regarding other ecosystem elements, such as airspace, airport and city integration, we’re working with other players. We need this collaboration to establish joint standards for this emerging industry.
Apart from eVTOLs, we will be using other vehicles for flight testing. At our Airbus Drone Center, we are flying different types of drones, for instance. We will also fly an airship to get pictures and imagery of the city and environment to map out navigation for autonomous flight. We want to deliver a fully-electric vehicle that flies and we want to learn how it will operate in this sandbox environment. It will help us design for the future as operations and regulations are evolving.
eVTOL.com: What is the group’s strategy for addressing public perception?
Markus May: We have dedicated work packages that are focused on public acceptance. There are different studies from universities from a citizen or travel perspective and different frameworks. The City of Ingolstadt had set up a living lab downtown in the past, and there will be more to come in the next three years. UAM will be designed for citizens, by citizens. This is one of the most important elements in order to achieve societal acceptance for such an innovative mode of transport.
For instance, noise — if you cannot distinguish the eVTOL from the background noise anymore, it will be more acceptable. We can see positive feedback from the public, whether we look at the EASA study or at the learnings from trials in Ingolstadt. The concerns of citizens about noise are very important to help us define a better solution.